EUR/NAT Region: Volcanic ash debrief and planning

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Following the decision of the European Air Navigation Planning Group (EANPG), Programme Coordinating Group (COG) and North Atlantic (NAT) Implementation Management Group (IMG), Volcanic Ash Exercises Steering Groups for the EUR and NAT Regions (VOLCEX/SG) and for the (far) Eastern part of the EUR Region (EUR (EAST) VOLCEX/ SG) were established to initiate and maintain a programme of regular volcanic ash exercises in the EUR/NAT Regions. One of the main goals of these exercises involves testing the volcanic ash contingency plan for the EUR and NAT Regions. Typically, one exercise called VOLCEX is planned and conducted by VOLCEX/ SG each year, with one exercise called VOLKAM planned and conducted by EUR (EAST) VOLCEX/SG.

The objective of these exercises is to improve the response to volcanic eruptions and volcanic ash contamination by the relevant national supervisory authorities, service providers (ATS, AIS, ATFM, MET) and airspace users, as well as improve the common volcanic ash contingency plan for the EUR and NAT Regions. The Network Manager of EUROCONTROL plays an active role in VOLCEX in exercising and evaluating the crisis coordination between various stakeholders through the EACCC (European Aviation Crisis Coordination Cell) and the AOCCC (Aircraft Operator Crisis Coordination Cell).

The VOLCEX22 Debrief, VOLCEX23 Planning and VOLCEX/SG/17 Meetings were held on 16 and 17 January 2023 at ICAO’s EUR/NAT Regional Office in Paris. The meetings were attended by a total of 49 participants from 16 States, two airlines and four international organizations.  The objectives of the meetings were to:

  • develop recommendations from the volcanic ash exercise conducted on 17 November 2022 called VOLCEX22; and
  • consider these recommendations in the objectives of the volcanic ash exercise that will be conducted on 21 November 2023 called VOLCEX23.

One significant achievement observed in VOLCEX22 was that no States that participated in the exercise closed their airspace, which is the second time in a row since these exercises began over a decade ago. This proved that States have adopted the acceptance of the Safety Risk Assessment (SRA) approach provided by operators, which is in accordance to the Volcanic Ash Contingency Plan for the EUR/NAT Regions. Routinely conducting volcanic ash exercises is essential because stakeholders continue to improve their readiness for a real volcanic ash event.

On 21 November 2023, VOLCEX23 will simulate a volcano eruption of Snaefellsjokull located in Iceland. The plume is expected to affect Iceland, Southeast of Iceland, Northwest and North Central Europe and may also impact the Mediterranean Sea area.

Furthermore, testing the Dynamic Airborne Reroute Procedure (DARP) in oceanic airspace is a VOLCEX23 objective. Training of ATC on the use of Controller Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC) loadable uplinks to reroute multiple aircraft in real-time is a necessary component of DARP. This will mitigate the potential for human error in the flight deck and reduce ATC workload to provide a safer airspace.

Air traffic control in the oceanic airspace receiving a reroute request from eastbound flights that exit oceanic airspace at a different oceanic exit point than that indicated in the flight plan will coordinate with Network Manager on acceptance of this reroute. This will prevent route discontinuities in the aircraft flight management system (FMS).  This is vital in the event of a loss of communication scenario, since both ATC and pilots must know what the route expectation is downstream.

The International Airways Volcano Watch (IAVW) is a complex system that requires co-operation between worldwide meteorological, aviation, and volcanological agencies, and exists under ICAO and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).  Procedures and standards of service have evolved rapidly, to the point where a fledgling warning system is in place.  The standards and procedures of the IAVW are set by ICAO and are negotiated between all IAVW participants, using informal and formal regional and international forums, and ultimately through the guidance of the IAVW Operations Group, which reports to the Air Navigation Commission.