LabLit.com

Martin Rivers on who you should trust

“If you want to know whether it's safe to fly into an ash cloud, ask a scientist. Ask a volcanologist. Just don't ask the person whose job it is to calculate whether X is less than the cost of a recall.”

- Martin Rivers, writing in the Guardian

A few days after the cessation of the six-day closure of UK airspace from the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, the recriminations still resound from politicians, airline executives and in the media. It was safe all along, we were told, and the flight ban was unnecessary.

Rivers reminds us that hindsight is a wonderful thing, and in this thoughtful piece, explains some of the hard facts about the risk management and financial considerations of dangerous activities. There’s no doubt, he writes, that “projecting human beings 35,000 feet into the sky without killing them is exceptionally difficult”, incurring an invisible risk factor of £130m a day. The ash, he argues, was a lot like a terrorist threat: the chances of it killing your passengers are slim, but you’d be a fool to ignore the threat altogether. But faced with the financial onslaught of dealing with so many cancelled flights hanging over them, it’s perhaps not surprising that airlines were urging us to throw caution to the ashy winds.

Everything we knew about the effects of ash on airplane engines at the time of the present eruption was decades old. Scientists at the Met Office quite rightly felt that the dangers presented were not completely understood and that a number of tests, using modern instruments not available during previous eruptions, were advised. Just because the CEO of British Airlines, Willy Walsh, took one of his own planes up and encountered no problems does not mean that at a different place and time, the ash wouldn’t have been dangerous: just ask the pilots of the NATO F-16 fighters which ran afoul over Western Europe. Any scientist could have told Walsh that his sample size was entirely too small to draw sweeping conclusions.

Read the entire piece here.