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Modelling Disaster: Met Office Faces £1 Billion Lawsuit

The Met Office has been blamed for triggering the “unnecessary” six-day closure of British airspace which has cost airlines, passengers and the economy more than £1.5 billion.

The government agency was accused of using a scientific model based on “probability” rather than fact to forecast the spread of the volcanic ash cloud that made Europe a no-fly zone and ruined the plans of more than 2.5 million travellers in and out of Britain.

A senior European official said there was no clear scientific evidence behind the model, which air traffic control services used to justify the unprecedented shutdown.

Eleven major British airlines joined forces last night to publicly criticise Nats, the air traffic control centre, over the way it interpreted the Met Office’s “very limited empirical data”.

Legal experts suggested passengers and airlines may be able to sue the Government for more than £1billion in compensation. Flights in and out of Britain are scheduled to resume today for the first time in almost a week after Lord Adonis, the Transport Secretary, said there had been a “dramatic decrease” in the volcano’s activity.

Airports in Scotland and the north of England will be the first to open, followed by those in the Midlands and then in the south of England by 6pm.

However, it has been estimated that the travel backlog could take up to a fortnight to clear.

British airspace was shut for the first time in history last Thursday amid fears that the volcanic ash from Iceland could get sucked into jet engines and cause them to malfunction.

The announcement last night that restrictions would be eased was accompanied by arguments over whether the shutdown had been an over-reaction.

Much of the blame was directed at the Met Office’s Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC). It provided the initial warning, which triggered the European-wide ban via Eurocontrol, the air traffic control centre in Brussels.

Matthias Ruete, the European Commission’s director-general of transport, said air traffic authorities should not have relied on a single source of scientific evidence before imposing the widespread ban. He suggested the no-fly zone should have been restricted to a 20 to 30-mile limit around the volcano. “The science behind the model we are running at the moment is based on certain assumptions where we do not have clear scientific evidence,” he said.

“We don’t even know what density the cloud should be in order to affect jet engines. We have a model that runs on mathematical projections.

It is probability rather than actual things happening.”

Mr Ruete said the commission had to intervene to allow airlines to make test flights in order to check the VAAC data “to help us move on from the mathematical model”.

Of the 40 test flights across Europe, including a British Airways flight on Sunday, none found any evidence of ash in jet engines, windows or lubrication systems.

In a joint letter to Lord Adonis, the 11 British airlines said the official response to the volcanic eruption presented “a clear case for government compensation”.

Jeff Zindani, of Forum Law solicitors, said: “Legal analysis suggests that there may be a raft of class actions brought by airlines and companies that are dependent on air travel to move their goods.

“This may well open the way for wider litigation against the Met Office and other government agencies who are found to have failed in their duty of care. The damages and legal costs could break the £1billion mark.”

Andy Harrison, the chief executive of easyJet, said the cost could run into “hundreds of millions of pounds”.

The International Air Transport Association (Iata), the airline industry trade body, also criticised the decision to close airspace based on theoretical modelling of the ash cloud.

“These decisions have been taken without adequately consulting the airlines. This is not an acceptable system particularly when the consequences for safety and the economy are so large,” said Giovanni Bisignani, the organisation’s director general.

He said the £1billion cost to the aviation industry could be attributed to lost revenue, repatriation, refunds and the cost of supporting stranded passengers. The cost to the wider British economy has been estimated at £500? million.

British Airways announced it planned to begin flying from London from 4pm after Willie Walsh, its chief executive, said the blanket ban had been “unnecessary”. Virgin Atlantic said it hoped to operate flights from London from 7pm.

Mr Walsh was one of the 11 signatories of the letter to Lord Adonis. It said: “We remain concerned that the approach taken by Nats has been too sweeping.” Warning of “long-term damage” to the industry, it added: “We believe that the nature of this natural disaster presents a clear case for government compensation. The closure of airspace is an uninsurable event and thus not a risk that airlines can reasonably be expected to bear.”

David Greene, the head of litigation at Edwin Coe, said legal action was more likely to be successful if taken by a large group of tourists and companies in a class action.

The Daily Telegraph, 19 April 2010

see also: Financial Times: Air ban led by flawed computer models