Has British Airways put the lives of passengers at risk in the rush to restore their profits by sending 26 long haul flights to Heathrow and Gatwick?

The result of the Icelandic volcano eruption has been the shutting down of the aviation industry, stopping all people or produce flying in or out of the UK for the past six days. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been lost to the economy every day. As the ash heads into our airspace, the crisis goes on.

The primary danger of this wafer-thin layer of micro ash floating in the air is that when it is sucked into a jet turbine – where the operating temperature in the combustion chamber heats up to 2000 degrees celcius (the maximun temperature of a jet fuel fire will reach, when constantly fed fuel) – it sticks to engine parts in the form of molten glass.

The melting temperature of glass starts at about 1500 degrees. So when this glass-laden ash melts in the turbines, it coats it with a fine layer of melted glass which is hot and (importantly) sticky.

Other small bits of ash then attach to the melted bits and build to form larger bits of molten hot sticky glass. These larger bits then can be flung a great velocity and temperature inside the engine, causing terminal damage and midflight aircraft malfunction. You know…. big explosion, everybody dies.

Invisible to the naked eye, ash can gradually hit the plane’s cockpit windows. This causes a sand blasting effect which virtually sandpapers the windows or leaves sticky tar like volcanic debris attached to the windows – and the pilot’s vision can be totally obscured. Not good with a 450-tonne 747 flying into London.

On Thursday 17 January 2008 ice in the fuel lines of a jet engine brought a British Airways plane down short of the runway, narrowly avoiding rooftops and fatalities by pure luck and pilot skill. A catastrophic scenario is not so hard to imagine with the slightest of engine failures.

Safety or profit?

The Civil Aviation Authority is the UK’s specialist aviation regulator. Through its skills and expertise it is recognised as a world leader in its field. In the last six days it has issued a ban on all air traffic operating in ash affected airspace.

This authority is the expert and it is put there to regulate this largely private for profit industry and ensure the safety of all of us. It is a government agency set up to protect us all – that’s what we pay our taxes for.

That is why I was astounded today when British Airways announced they have launched 26 long haul flights, packed with passengers, with the intended destination of the London airports of Heathrow and Gatwick. This was in defiance of the Civil Aviation Authority, in what was reported as allegedly an attempt by British Airways to force a faster decision from the CAA on opening airports before the safety of passengers and Londoners could be guaranteed.

In essence British Airways is losing about £25 million a day due to the volcanic ash. It is making decisions in defiance of the highest legal authority in aviation in this country, seemingly for profit.

It was one thing to watch BA recently play dirty tricks on its beleaugered workforce, like witholding their pay packets for wages earnt before they took strike action and asking some of the lowest paid staff to work for free last year (in order to ‘save the company’). But to deny the safety issue of volcanic ash, and to try and force an impasse which could put the lives of Londoners and passengers at risk, is representative of the lack of loyality British Airways has for the people of Britain.

I felt what I was witnessing was the most macabre bargaining chip at a poker game in history. 26 planes full of people threatening to illegally enter potentially unsafe airspace.

The Civil Aviation Authority was set up for the protection of public safety and is a function of the government. Safety is their primary concern. British Airways is a shareholder owned company set up for the profit of its shareholders.

I know which one I want making decisions in relation to safety, both in the air and on the ground. Even if the Civil Aviation Authority gets it wrong – and wait a little longer to ensure people’s safety over profit – it should be able to do so without the profit making companies interfering or lobbying our unelected Lords.

It was reported by 8:30pm on 20 April, several hours after British Ariways launched the flights towards London, that the airports would reopen at 10pm. Interestingly this decision was made by Lord Adonis, the ‘Airlines’ and the Civil Aviation Authority whilst 26 planes were en route.

Shortly after 10pm the familiar rumble of jet engines roared over my house towards Heathrow. All were British Airways planes. All would have been in the air prior to the safety of Londoners was determined or decided. ‘Let us make profit now or we will hold people to ransom regardless’ seems to be the familiar language of capitalists.

Four Man Films