European low-cost airline easyJet PLC unveiled plans on Friday to fit its planes with radar to detect volcanic ash.
easyJet said the devices — designed to be placed on the tail fin and detect ash within 100 kilometers (60 miles) — are the first of its kind and could prevent a repeat of the shutdown of European airspace last month caused by an erupting Icelandic volcano.
The airline is spending 1 million pounds ($1.46 million) developing and testing the technology with aircraft manufacturer Airbus and hopes to trial the devices in a dozen of its planes by the end of the year.
The AVOID — Airborne Volcanic Object Identifier and Detector — technology involves a lightweight infrared device that supplies images to both the pilots and an airline's flight control center, enabling pilots to see an ash cloud at altitudes between 5,000 feet and 50,000 feet.
"This pioneering technology is the silver bullet that will make large-scale ash disruption history," easyJet CEO Andy Harrison told reporters in London. "The ash detector will enable our aircraft to see and avoid the ash cloud, just like airborne weather radars and weather maps make thunderstorms visible."
However, the devices will need approval from regulators across Europe and industrywide adoption to have a significant effect.
Harrison said that easyJet hadn't worked out the commercial details, but intended to share the technology.
"What we don't want to do is to gain a commercial advantage over other airlines so we can fly and they can't," he said. "This is a huge leap forward and the best thing is to get this technology on hundreds of planes operated by a number of airlines."
The unprecedented closure of European airspace in April caused direct losses of more than euro1 billion ($1.3 billion) to the airlines affected, and as much as euro1.5 billion ($1.95 billion) to other businesses.
Millions of passengers were stranded as flights were canceled, turning to boats, trains and cars to get to their destinations.
Few doubt that flying a plane directly into the plumes of a volcano could disable the aircraft. But it remains unclear whether the abrasive particles present a hazard to the jets outside the immediate area of the volcanic plume, once it is dispersed by high-altitude winds.
Airlines have blamed European regulators for overreacting to what they say was a manageable threat and have demanded that internationally recognized standards of ash contamination be set.
easyJet, which lost 55-75 million pounds because of the closure, is one of a number of airlines seeking compensation from governments.
Andrew Haines, the chief executive of Britain's Civil Aviation Authority, welcomed easyJet's testing of new technology.
"I very much hope this is a sign that the industry is going to play its part ... rather than pretending the risk doesn't exist," he said.
Haines defended the decision to close airspace during the height of the crisis, saying aircraft manufacturers did not provide any information about what was a safe level of ash.
"Until we could get a clear assessment, we were absolutely justified in taking the actions we took," he said. "Otherwise, it would have been a case of keeping our fingers crossed and I don't think anyone would have thanked us for that."
easyJet plans to carry out its first test flight on an Airbus A340 test plane within two months. Depending on the results of those tests, it will then move to the wider trial on its own aircraft.
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