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The Ash Cloud: Risk Analytics at their worst

The Ash cloud that spread across Europe was considered (by authorities) unsafe for flying for several days, resulting in a loss of $1 billion to airlines. The conclusion was based solely on one test involving simulated data.

This raises a few issues:

- Good sense has been ignored. If flights had not been canceled (except in case of one single major issue such as plane crash or engine failure or problematic plane damage), the loss would have been much less than $1 billion
- Flying was banned, but driving a car was not. However, during the time period in question, car fatalities in the quarantined zone was much higher than any fatalities that would have resulted from flying too close to the ash cloud (because, as I said, at the very first plane crash, authorization to fly would have been stopped)
- Shouldn't satellite image analysis be better at assessing the risks caused by ash clouds? And what about test flights?
- Agencies that monitor sky safety probably use outdated statistical models, and work with people who lack judgment (the decision makers, in particular)
- Populations will stop believing in what authorities say: in Europe in particular, they've already been misled by the H1N1 virus scare, now by the ash cloud. When a real threat will arise, nobody will take it seriously, not if the risk assessment come from authorities
- We leave in the world where more and more people seek total protection and insurance against all potential hazards. For the few who think differently, the rewards will be big. For most other people, life will not bring much fun.

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Comment by Duncan Stuart on May 17, 2010 at 2:12pm
Well we live in twitchy times for sure. But I think your analysis (comparing with car fatalities) is not quite fair. The big elephant in the room is the human condition - the hugely varying capability of evalutating risk. In some ways, if we FEEL it is too risky, then it IS too risky. That's how humans choose to operate. And yes, we'll pay billions for that privelege.
Comment by Robin Gower on May 17, 2010 at 8:22am
I'm not sure that risk analysis was to blame. Surely the problem is that chaotic weather patterns are extremely hard to predict; iirc weather models tend to the 'white earth scenario' - i.e. a global freeze - when applied to longer-term forecasts.
I understand that satellite imagery was employed: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8625813.stm (see the EUMETSAT/ Met Office pictures at the bottom).
Perhaps the response could have been modified to allow those who're prepared to take risks to continue flying - airports, airlines, pilots, cabin crew, passengers etc could all have signed a waiver. I should imagine that gathering agreement from all these parties might be prohibitively difficult. Furthermore this would exclude some people from the agreement - namely those of us on the earth below whom would suffer if a plane crashed, the aviation authorities have a responsibility to protect those people on the ground too.
Given the difficulty of prediction and the extreme costs of crashes, I'm not surprised that all flights were grounded. The airlines should have contingencies in place for this sort of event, even though it is uncommon.
Comment by Iryna Khrapava on April 23, 2010 at 1:10pm
My first thought is that there is a hidden reason behind that. It all sounds logical at this point. However, considering a human factor and fear, logic is giving the pas in decision making. So, the population could be lead anywhere pretty easy. Hence, the question - who benefited?

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