Alice’s Adventures in Volcano Land: The Use and Abuse of Expert Knowledge in Safety Regulation

As a volcano refugee in Frankfurt, it was rather interesting to see a slow motion regulatory science disaster taking place. On April 14 2010 the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted sending millions of tons of ash into the upper atmosphere. The ash cloud, blown by the prevailing winds, moved down over northern Europe. European air traffic authorities, following well established and widely published safety protocols, began shutting down the air transport system due to the well known hazard of volcano ash.

The shutdown lasted 6 days and soon became an unequal political contest between airline money on the one side and regulatory science on the other. In a classic case of shooting the messenger bringing bad news the responsible airline parties tried to shift the blame for shutdown to the regulators, while nervous governments quailed before the bullying of the airline executives. Demands for compensation and accusations of regulatory incompetence filled the media. Despite their 25 years of pointing out the hazards of volcanic ash and its implications for air travel, volcano scientists and the air traffic system that relied on them were steamrollered into political oblivion and public humiliation by the combined financial and political clout of ambitious airline executives, their trade association (IATA) and cowardly politicians. Practically overnight the fundamental regulatory system, based on avoiding volcanic ash was jettisoned for what was declared to be a previously unknown “safe” level of ash. While the ultimate dénouement of this débâcle will not be known for some times, a taxpayer bailout for the airlines that refused to prepare for a natural disaster is certainly being pushed. The implications for sciencebased safety regulation are also ominous.



Copyright: © Lexxion Verlagsgesellschaft mbH
Source: Issue 02/2010 (Juni 2010)
Pages: 7
Price: € 41,65
Autor: Prof. Emeritus Dr. Jur. Vincent M. Brannigan

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