Caribbean Airlines has announced that it’s canceling several flights due to recent eruptive activity from the La Soufrière volcano in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Why Aviation and Ash Don’t Mix
Safety is the number one priority in aviation and airlines follow strict international guidance from the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) regarding volcanic eruptions. There have been well-documented incidents with aircraft and volcanic ash, showing how dangerous high-density ash can be.
Notably, in 1982, a British Airways 747 flight from London Heathrow to Auckland, New Zealand, flew into a volcanic ash cloud from Mount Galunggung near Jakarta in Indonesia, failing all four engines. Luckily, the aircraft was able to glide far enough to exit the ash cloud, restart its engines, and safely divert to Jakarta Airport.
What Happens when Ash enters an Engine?
Volcanic ash is terrible news for aircraft engines because when the glass in the ash melts, it can stick to various parts of the engine. This can cause sensors to fail, and the thousands of microscopic holes that direct cooling air through the turbine blades can become blocked. Ash particles can erode forward-facing surfaces, including windscreens, fuselage surfaces, and compressor fan blades. There’s also a real risk that exposure to ash can cause partial or total engine failure.
When the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland erupted in Spring 2010, the guidance used worldwide from the ICAO was to avoid any amount of ash. The guidance stated: “in the case of volcanic ash, regardless of ash concentration — avoid, avoid, avoid.” Unfortunately, this volcano affected some of the most congested airspaces globally, and as the ash covered much of Europe, flying around it was not an option. Thousands of passengers were stranded, but it was a necessary step to avoid a dangerous incident.
Volcano Disrupts Air Travel in the Caribbean
La Soufrière Volcano, which hasn’t been active since 1979, began erupting on 9 April 2021. The volcano, which is located north of Saint Vincent’s island in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, has forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes. Scientists have warned that the volcanic eruptions could continue for days – or even weeks and “pose a significant threat to flight safety.”
As a result, several airports have closed, and air operations in the eastern Caribbean have been disrupted. The affected airports are Argyle International Airport in Kingstown, San Vicente, and Grantley Adams International Airport in Bridgetown, Barbados. Trinidad-based Caribbean Airlines has announced numerous flights to Barbados from Antigua, Saint Vincent, Grenada, Ogle, Kingston, New York, and Dominica. Inter-island commuter airline LIAT, American Airlines, InterCaribbean Airways, JetBlue, and British Airways have also canceled flights to several islands.
Aviation’s Life-saving Cargo Services
For Caribbean Airlines, the disruption to its services comes just days after the airline’s airfreight division shipped life-saving COVID-19 vaccines from Miami to Barbados and Dominica. Since the pandemic, Caribbean Airlines Cargo has also been transporting humanitarian supplies, personal protective equipment (PPE), COVID-19 test kits, and electronic equipment for remote learning to support the region.
Marklan Moseley, general manager of cargo and new business at Caribbean Airlines, said:
“Caribbean Airlines is well-placed to support our region in its efforts towards recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. We have successfully delivered COVID-19 vaccines to Barbados, Dominica and Guyana and are committed to continuing the swift, secure and seamless movement of these important shipments as the Caribbean rolls out vaccination programmes.”
Throughout the pandemic, airlines have stepped up and helped millions of people by delivering vital cargo and developing solutions for vaccine distribution. The volcanic eruption in the Caribbean may be a setback, but it will not stop aviation from playing a critical role in global pandemic recovery.
Have you experienced travel disruption caused by a volcanic eruption? Let us know in the comments below!