BRUSSELS, Belgium — Dublin’s in; Bratislava’s out. Oslo’s a maybe; Switzerland’s definitely going dark; Frankfurt will sleep on it and decide in the morning.
How on earth — much less in the air — could anyone keep track of the ups and downs of Europe’s airports as they continue to react to the treacherous cloud of ash coming from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano?
The simple answer: EUROCONTROL.
The word itself, usually shown in all capital letters, even looks imposing, like it should be intoned in the booming voice of James Earl Jones.
In reality, EUROCONTROL — which sounds much less intimidating when called by its full name, “The European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation” — has no time for contemplating its image, which until this week has typically been low-key.
This is the agency responsible for coordinating the in-air activities of 40 European countries: every pilot, every flight, every delay and every re-routing that crosses more than one state. National air traffic controllers file their information with EUROCONTROL, which is then responsible for communicating and coordinating with the other towers along the flights' paths.
Brian Flynn, deputy head of operations, describes their mission simply: “We have an accurate picture of where all of the aircraft in Europe are at any one time, where they are and where they’re expected to be.”
Between “where they are” and “where they’re expected to be” has never been a bigger gulf than right now, with Iceland’s volcanic activity having brought European air traffic to a near-standstill. “It’s unprecedented,” said Kenneth Thomas, one of EUROCONTROL’s managers. “I just counted and at the moment we have 16 countries affected and I expect we’ll have more by morning.”
EUROCONTROL is where everyone is turning to find minute-by-minute data on how many flights are in the air, where there are still operational air paths and where there is just no hope of getting up in the air.
On Friday night, the organization's website reveals dismal news for airlines: only 10,507 flights have flown in Europe in the last 24 hours, compared to the 28,000 of a normal day. Every affected airport in Europe is listed, along with when they’ll be reassessing their situations.
In the morning, Sweden will look at “the possibility of opening … their northern sectors” and there may be some trips allowed into northern Ireland and western parts of Scotland. London airspace — on a usual day nearly the busiest in Europe — will remain closed until at least 7 a.m. Meanwhile, the volcano’s activity remains “intense” with “continuous steam eruption,” the portal says.
Flynn emphasized that EUROCONTROL takes a back seat when it comes to deciding how individual countries should handle crises like the ash cloud. With any eruption, he explained, one of nine Volcanic Activity Advisory Centers publishes warnings and information to alert the aviation community. EUROCONTROL organizes discussions among the members, then civil aviation authorities and air navigation service providers decide how to handle the situation.
It’s an incredibly complex system that plays out on numerous computer screens. Little icons represent each flight aloft in European airspace at any given time and the phones jangle non-stop for coordinating the flight plans each pilot must submit three hours before the scheduled take-off.
Friday, naturally, the conversations followed different directions. “A lot of our work this morning was providing routes for the very limited number of transatlantic flights that are able to operate in and out of Europe,” Flynn said. “That is our daily business. We’re doing today our daily business under very stressful conditions but it’s the business that we are in.”
Flynn thinks that despite the enormous emotional and financial costs for travelers, airlines and airports, for EUROCONTROL, things are actually going quite well. And not by chance.
“As late as last November,” Flynn said, “we carried out a simulation in this operation center of exactly such an event.” They pretended a volcano erupted, forcing the closure of airspace in busy countries and “tested all the various procedures, the communications, the coordination we need to do in such an event.”
While no one could have predicted the severity of the Eyjafjallajokull, the ongoing eruption and the lack of wind that would help disperse the ashes, Flynn says operations are going smoothly.
Of course, it’s nowhere near over yet — the closure of airspace is expanding rather than diminishing. It will be up to EUROCONTROL to oversee all the re-routing for the thousands of flights that will be in a twisted mess once they can take off again.
In the office of EUROCONTROL communications director Kyla Evans, the phone hasn't stopped ringing and an inordinate number of the calls are from people stranded in random airports who somehow get her phone number and want to know what they should do. She says she explains gently that they should ask their airline and makes it a point not to be brusque. “When somebody calls me from the other side of the world and says ‘when am I going to be able to get to Europe, I’m trying to see my mother,’ I would feel really bad to put the phone down on them,” Evans said. “I really do my best to tell them what the situation is.”
Unfortunately for everyone involved, only one entity has the power to control that situation — and that's Eyjafjallajokull.