Ash could continue to ground planes, says expert

Air travelers could be in for a lot more emergency landings over the coming months thanks to the Icelandic volcano, an aviation expert has said.

Stephen Wright of the University of Leeds believes the impact of volcanic ash on airplane air-conditioning systems could be serious, and could start to show up over the next few weeks.

Air conditioning systems filter all dirt out, so there’s a cumulative effect. Once clogged, they can overheat, forcing an unscheduled or emergency landing. And with the air-conditioning units sited underneath the central fuel tank on many planes, the effects can be serious.

“Once the air-con unit is clogged up, it is less effective and so tries to work harder to maintain pressure and temperature – and so begins to overheat,” says Wright.

“The systems have built-in safety controls, so they’re unlikely to catch fire.  However, overheating will mean pilots have to shut down the affected system, and as this provides fresh air to the cabin, the loss will normally result in either an unscheduled or emergency landing.

At the very least, he says, the air industry will have to work much harder at maintenance to keep the systems working – just when the grounding of planes has put them under severe financial pressure.