By Laurence Peter
BBC News
EU rules say airlines must look after stranded passengers

Europe's ash cloud has triggered a flurry of anguished calls for the EU to improve its crisis response and co-ordination, as countries struggle to help thousands of stranded passengers.

In the European Parliament MEPs took it in turns to urge the EU to do more.

Jo Leinen MEP, a German in the centre-left European Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group, said Europe was “ill-prepared for natural disasters… We see that the crisis management has many shortcomings.”

The emergency video conference of EU transport ministers, held on Monday, should have taken place earlier, he said. That complaint was echoed by other MEPs in Tuesday's debate in Strasbourg.

The European Commission has defended itself by saying the Icelandic volcano crisis is unprecedented and national governments are responsible for their own airspace and air traffic control.

European 'patchwork'
The EU Transport Commissioner, Siim Kallas, admitted that “fragmentation caused by a patchwork of different national decisions is limiting available airspace. This is not sustainable.” He called for “a European approach” instead.

His spokeswoman Helen Kearns told the BBC that there had been a “failure to differentiate between different zones of risk” and even member states “interpreting the same scientific maps in different ways”.

Despite EU integration in many other policy areas, air traffic control has remained in the hands of national authorities because historically it touches on sensitive questions of sovereignty and defence.

But the crisis gives ammunition to supporters of greater EU integration who argue that the ash cloud has no respect for borders.

The head of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Giovanni Bisignani, spoke of “a European mess”.

He too bemoaned the fact that it took five days to organise a conference call of transport ministers.

Safety first
Eurocontrol, the agency that co-ordinates aviation safety in Europe, has been accused of a “hasty” decision in grounding planes across Europe.

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Eurocontrol, like the Commission, insists it was right to put passenger safety first. But it accepted on Monday that it was time to “move towards a harmonised European approach” to ease the costly and hugely disruptive flight restrictions.

The airlines are reckoned to be losing about $200m (£131m; 149m euros) daily in this crisis.

EU transport ministers have now established three aviation zones: one entirely off-limits because of the ash threat, one giving limited access to flights and one open to all aircraft.

And the Commission has set up a high-level working group to assess the impact of the ash on transport and the wider economy. It aims to identify areas where EU member states can improve coordination to minimise such chaos in future.

The crisis has highlighted a shortage of relevant scientific data on the volcanic ash hazard in Europe.

The German carrier Lufthansa and the Dutch airline KLM ran test flights on Sunday and gave their jets a clean bill of health, with no sign of the feared engine damage that volcanic ash can cause.

But in a blog on the flightglobal.com website aviation specialist David Learmount says volcanic eruptions in the past have mostly affected areas with far fewer flights.

“The tactic for dealing with ash clouds, until now, has been to fly around them,” he writes.

The current volcano crisis poses new scientific challenges for Europe, he argues.

Satellites cannot pick up the type of widely dispersed, very fine ash particles over Europe at present, he says, so experts have to rely on computer modelling and atmospheric sampling.

'Rigid' response
Eurocontrol must make better use of the available technology, Philip Bradbourn, a UK Conservative MEP, argued on Tuesday.

It is time to move on from “licking your finger and sticking it in the air to see which way the wind is blowing,” he said.

Peter van Dalen MEP, a Dutch conservative and vice-chairman of the European Parliament's transport committee, rejected calls for new EU bodies to harmonise aviation policy.

“The existing institutions should be improved. The lesson is that the information should be more accurate, so that passengers are informed at a very early stage how long they will have to wait at airports,” he told the BBC.

Eurocontrol's flight ban had been “too rigid”, he said. “They should have analysed the satellite information better – then a risk analysis can tell you what part of the airspace to close.”

The test flights should also have been done earlier, he said.

He believes Eurocontrol was over-influenced by two previous ash incidents, involving a BA jet over Indonesia in 1982 and a KLM jet over Alaska in 1989. In those cases the concentration of volcanic ash was greater and the jets were only about 100km (60 miles) from the eruptions, he says.

Deficiencies in Europe's rail network have also been exposed by the crisis, as passengers struggle to find alternative routes home.

A unified system for booking rail tickets, modelled on the flight booking system, would help, Mr Van Dalen says.

There have also been calls for the fiercely competitive airlines to co-operate more in such crises, in the interests of the travelling public.