Waiting for the dust to settle: The effects of volcanic ash on the aviation industry

In April 2010 Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted, wreaking havoc across European airspace. At its maximum impact, 75% of all European airline operations were closed. Over seven days of disruption, 10 million people were unable to travel and airline losses reached $1.7 billion.

Despite the lack of a similarly high-profile event in the last seven years, ash cloud remains a risk to airlines. In 2016 alone:

  • Over 3000 passengers were disrupted when Pavlof volcano erupted in Alaska
  • Volcanic activity from Mt Rinjani caused cancellations across multiple airlines flying to and from Bali
  • Operations were suspended at Costa Rica’s San Jose airport after the Turrialba volcano

There are more than 500 active volcanoes in the world. On average 12 eruptions per year can be expected globally, some lasting several weeks. Once in the atmosphere volcanic ash particles are transported over large distances by wind before settling on the ground.

The global impact of volcanic ash on aviation

Deadly risks

Tiny particles of ash can pulverise and erode engine parts and obscure the pilot’s view

Although ash has never caused an aircraft crash or loss of human life, these risks remain present. Volcanic ash is made up of silicates, which melt when they encounter the heat of a modern commercial jet engine. The molten ash then solidifies on the turbine blades, which can block air flow and cause the engine to stall.

Ash is also dangerous when it hasn’t melted; the tiny particles can pulverise and erode engine parts and obscure the pilot’s view if it overs the windshield. When a British Airways 747 encountered a volcanic cloud in 1982, the ash caused all four engines to shut down resulting in 25,000 feet of powerless descent before they could be rebooted.

Business interruption risks

Aside from the threat of aircraft damage and loss of life, ash cloud can cause severe business interruption and financial loss for the aviation industry and national economies. And the costs are not isolated to airlines; Manchester Airports Group in the U.K. claimed the 2010 eruption cost it upward of £15 million with holiday operators reporting similar misfortunes.

Volcanic research

E-tools allow modelling of the damage caused by volcanic products such as lava flows, pyroclastic density currents, and volcanic ash fallout

Volcanic research science has evolved significantly in recent years, mainly thanks to the incorporation of deterministic and probabilistic tools to better understand, quantify and manage volcanic hazard and risk.

E-tools have been published in the last decade by scientific groups around the world working on the various geological hazards associated with volcanic eruptions. These allow modelling of the damage caused by volcanic products such as lava flows, pyroclastic density currents, and volcanic ash fallout.

Although these tools are primarily aimed at helping governments and civil authorities to manage volcanic crises and their impact on nearby economies, the aviation industry is starting to pay attention. This is partly owing to events such as the 2010 Icelandic eruption, which raised awareness about the vulnerability and exposure of intertwined industries to volcanic events.

Modelling volcanic ash

Atmospheric dispersion of hazardous substances resulting from events such as volcanic eruptions or sand storms can affect all air transport stakeholders:

  • Airlines
  • Airports
  • Air navigation service providers
  • And of course passengers

Volcanic ash dispersal models are used to predict atmospheric concentration of particles in time and space based on:

  • Meteorological conditions (mainly wind)
  • Eruption scenario (eruption duration, mass eruption rate, ash emission height, physical properties of particles)

Modelling strategies exist for short-term forecast (up to 48 hours) and long-term hazard assessment (up to decades).

The Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC), a world-renowned institution in the development of computer applications for science and engineering, has state-of-the-art tools for modelling volcanic ash dispersal in the atmosphere (e.g. FALL3D) which have now been incorporated into some volcanic ash advisory centres, such as the ones in Darwin and Buenos Aires.

Source: BSC, FALL3D

To bridge the gap between science and industry, the BSC is working on the development of solutions for air traffic management (ATM) in the event of volcanic ash presence in the atmosphere. This initiative is aimed at merging volcanic ash model forecasts and ATM databases (airports, routes, FIRs and flights) to evaluate impacts based on user-defined criteria; such as concentration threshold and maximum engine dose for volcanic ash. The tools can also be adapted to account for the impact of mineral dust and fog.

We are confident that research collaborations such as these have the potential to add value and help the aviation sector in the event of a volcanic eruption and volcanic ash dispersal.


The Willis Research Network (WRN) coordinates research activities with WRN members such as the Group of Volcanology of Barcelona and the Barcelona Supercomputing Centre (BSC), to understand the potential risk and economic impact to the industry of volcanic events.



Rosa Sobradelo is part of the Willis Research Network where she coordinates research activities in the areas of geological hazards and risk. Rosa holds a BS in Business from the University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain), an MS in Mathematics and Statistics from New York University and a Ph.D. in Statistics from the University of Catalonia (Spain). She has a track record in risk modelling across various disciplines, and as a researcher in probabilistic volcanic hazard and risk assessment. She has published in international peer-review journals over the last decade.

About Grace Watts

Grace Watts works in Willis Towers Watson’s Transportation Industry team. The team work with organisations around…
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