EasyJet is investing in trials of simple technology that could prevent a future shutdown of airspace due to volcanic ash.
The carrier will pioneer tests of a system involving twin infra-red cameras fitted to the tailfin of aircraft which can detect small quantities of ash in the atmosphere up to 100 kilometres away.
The system, called the Airborne Volcanic Object Identifier and Detector (AVOID), was developed by Dr Fred Prata of the Norwegian Institute for Air Reseach and has been available for trials since 1993, but no manufacturer or airline has previously been prepared to invest in it. The trials will cost easyJet just £1 million.
Prata said: “We had a very good scientific idea, but no business case for developing it until April this year.”
The shutdown of airports across Europe due to the April ash cloud is estimated to have cost carriers more than $2 billion before flying restrictions were eased. EasyJet put its losses at £50 million to £70 million.
The airline will fit the system to an Airbus A340 to allow manufacturer Airbus to conduct tests close to erupting volcanoes around the world, as well as to 12 of its own aircraft to collect data from routine flights around Europe.
Outgoing chief executive Andy Harrison said: “This will make large-scale ash disruption history. The ash detector will enable our aircraft to avoid an ash cloud, just like airborne weather radar and weather maps make thunderstorms visible.”
The Civil Aviation Authority has endorsed the trial following fierce criticism of its handling of the ash crisis. CAA chief executive Andrew Haines said: “This proposal is a first for the world. We will do all we can to facilitate it.”
However, Haines defended the shutdown, saying: “We had a choice to take a punt on what might be safe or to gather information.”
How long it takes for the technology to become widespread will depend not only on the success of the trial, but also on the take up by other airlines and on what European authorities decide to do with the data. EasyJet said it would fit 12 aircraft with the AVOID system by the end of the year.