EU below the ash cloud

How to deal with such phenomena?

The situation remains “fluid”, just like the ash cloud generated by the eruption of the Icelandic volcano of Eyjafjallajoekull. And while the forces of nature proceed without impediment and without abatement, Europe, and not only Europe, is having to come to terms with the problems of air traffic (thousands of cancelled flights), with the economic damage created by the closing down of airspace and flight cancellation, and with the interconnected question of air safety for the travelling public. Coordination at the European level. “The inconveniences and problems linked to the eruption” of the Icelandic volcano “have so far created” in the transport sector “an impact even greater than that following 11 September with the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers”, admitted Siim Kallas, Commission Vice-President and Commissioner for Transport, in a briefing to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on 20 April, analyzing the situation in the European skies created as a result of the volcanic eruption (even if the presence of MEPs at the session was severely reduced as a result of the very problems Kallas described, which had made difficult transport between their countries of residence and the city in Alsace). Kallas touched on the questions of air safety, the emergency situations created in the transport of passengers and goods, and evaluated the huge financial losses being run up by airlines. “A pan-European approach for situations of this gravity is needed”, he insisted, emphasizing two points in particular: “First, safety standards must be respected because people’s lives are at stake. Second, after what has happened, each minister ought immediately to have taken decisions at the national level, but once again the reality on the ground has demonstrated that a European coordination is needed to tackle crises of this scale”. Passenger safety comes first. Kallas outlined the agreement reached by transport ministers of the 27 EU member states at their meeting on 19 April. “We have unanimously agreed to intensify European co-ordination, based on the spirit of collaboration. Second, we all agreed on the priority that needs to be assigned to flight safety. And third: we established the urgent need to open the skies in a progressive manner, while continuing to keep developments monitored by Eurocontrol”, the European agency that monitors air traffic safety. The Commissioner also recalled that the ministers of the 27 have “indicated the approach recommended in a package” called “European single sky”. It’s in line with this, he said, that “we ought to take into consideration various aspects” of the situation created in recent days, including possible financial interventions with state aid for the airlines most badly affected, “to safeguard businesses and jobs”. According to Kallas, “it’s also essential to resume flights to avoid creating panic. At the same time, the rules for the protection of passengers need to be applied”: for example, their right to receive precise information from airlines about flight delays or cancellations, receive assistance, and be given the chance to choose between a refund or be re-booked on a later flight. Kallas, lastly, confirmed that “the situation is evolving”, also consequent on the natural phenomena in Iceland and the meteorological conditions in the hours ahead. Continent divided into three areas. Spanish Secretary of State Diego Lopez Garrido, who holds the rotating chair of the Transport Council, then clarified in detail the decisions taken at the EU. “Europe has been divided into three areas: first, that in which there’s greater concentration of volcanic ash and in which flights are banned; second, that is which the presence of volcanic ash is lower, and in which flights can resume, but in which atmospheric controls still need to be carried out every 6 hours; and thirdly, that where the ash cloud has not yet reached and in which no restrictions on flights have yet been imposed”. In the meantime, what’s needed at the national level is to “guarantee that citizens be offered valid alternative systems to travel”: and here the key role of the railways and road transport comes into play. Among the many inconveniences registered throughout the continent, the work of the European Parliament itself suffered significant variations due to the difficulties faced by MEPs, administrators, commissioners and journalists in reaching Strasbourg. There were many defections from Northern Europe, the UK, and the Scandinavian and Baltic countries. The plenary session, planned for 22 April, has been shortened by one day, while the political groups have decided to go ahead with the scheduled debates, though without voting on any legislative provision. The debate between MEPs’ was rather heated: many deputies deplored the delay in taking appropriate action on the part of national and EU authorities; others criticized the “experts” who had failed to give precise indications, thus leaving the airlines in a state of uncertainty; yet others maintained that in too many cases passengers had been left in the lurch, both in airports and in railway stations, with serious inconveniences for citizens.

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