Release #10.010
May 6, 2010

Pilots to Congress: Volcanic Ash Threat Requires More Research

WASHINGTON – In testimony before a Congressional subcommittee this week, the world’s largest pilots union called for conducting comprehensive research and collecting more data on the safety hazard posed by volcanic ash. The Air Line Pilots Association, Int’l (ALPA) also encouraged the airline industry to improve methods to detect ash, strengthen certification standards, and enhance pilot and controller training to better protect the traveling public.

“The recent Icelandic eruption demonstrated a lack of standardization between the various forecasts available to flight crews and dispatchers,” Capt. Linda Orlady, ALPA’s Executive Air Safety Vice-Chair, said in her testimony (oral testimony | written submission) before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics. “As operations resumed in Europe, we received reports from pilots at different airlines, who were given conflicting information in their dispatch release documents.”

Flying in volcanic ash and gases poses a significant, but little-understood, threat to the integrity of an aircraft, its engines, and to the health of its occupants. Although no fatal airline accidents have been attributed to volcanic ash, Orlady underscored to the Subcommittee that damage to aircraft and potential dangers to the passengers and crew have been well documented.

She cited two events involving a British Airways 747 flight over Indonesia in 1982, and a KLM 747 flying over Alaska in 1989. Both of these aircraft lost power to all four engines during an inadvertent volcanic ash encounter. In each case, the pilots struggled to restart the engines and to handle other malfunctions but did manage to safely land a badly damaged aircraft.

“The recent air travel disruption demonstrated the benefit of having data to reliably and objectively define a specific hazard area, potentially allowing flights in some regions,” said Orlady. “However, we do not have scientifically reliable data to make that determination. Areas of potential hazard cannot currently be defined in terms that flight crews can use for dispatch and while airborne.”

A significant amount of additional research and data is needed to fully understand the hazards, vulnerabilities, and mitigation strategies to ensure that safety is not compromised before ALPA would support the dispatch and operation of aircraft into areas of known volcanic ash.

In addition to stronger data and more comprehensive research, Orlady advocated additional steps needed to enhance safety in areas where volcanic ash may pose a risk including:

“ALPA is encouraged that the U.S. Senate version of the current FAA reauthorization bill supports research on volcanic ash hazards,” Orlady told the Subcommittee members. “We urge Congress to enact the legislation. Without such research to improve understanding of the hazards, and ways to mitigate them, ALPA continues to advocate that the only safe course of action is for flight crews to avoid any encounter with volcanic ash.”

Founded in 1931, ALPA is the world’s largest pilot union, representing nearly 53,000 pilots at 38 airlines in the United States and Canada. Visit the ALPA website at


CONTACT: Linda Shotwell, 703/481-4440 or