Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Computer modelling in the dock?

Too many people, in my view, got off far too lightly from the debacle over the closure of UK airspace following the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano. But, it seems, there may be a reckoning after all.

EasyJet, we are told, is planning to bring a class action lawsuit to win compensation for flight bans imposed in April and in May, the details having emerged from CEO Andy Harrison who told the German Wirstschaftswoche magazine that the budget airline was talking to other carriers about a legal claim.

The original five-day closure of European airspace cost the airline between £50 million and £75 million, and Harrison believes that, although the eruption was a natural catastrophe, there was no reason why the consequences should have been borne by the airlines alone, "particularly when it became apparent afterwards that a closure of that size was unnecessary."

An easyJet spokesman said that the company believed it could make a good case for compensation. "We are still talking to the Government about it but it is also quite natural for us to look into the legal avenues of redress, " he said. He would not say which other airlines would be involved in bringing a case against the safety authorities, because they did not wish to be identified.

Should this ever come to court, it will be a highly significant case, not least because the closure advice rested with the UK Met Office which in turn relied on computer modelling for its risk assessment. For the first time, therefore, we could be seeing computer modelling in the dock, with some implications for their continued use in climate predictions.

With their legitimacy challenged over the short-term, it will be much harder for the Met Office to claim that similar technology has any validity in telling us what the climate is going to be like fifty years hence.

More to the point, though, the credibility of the Met Office as an organisation will be on the line, as a central part of any case will be to show that it placed unreasonable faith in the accuracy of its models, and that the models were flawed. The parallel with climate change is all too obvious, and much too important to ignore.