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The Ash Cloud That Never Was: Inaccurate Met Office Forecast Causes Airport Chaos

The airport chaos that hit tens of thousands of travellers yesterday was based on a faulty ash cloud prediction. Officials closed south-eastern airspace for ten hours following a Met Office alert about dangerous levels of ‘black’ ash. Yet when the forecasters took fresh soundings, and sent up a plane to check, they found their assessment was flawed: there was no such ash.

By the time the mistake had been realised, Heathrow had cancelled 169 arrivals and departures and Gatwick more than 200. An estimated 50,000 passengers were affected.

Willie Walsh, boss of British Airways, said the shutdown was a gross over-reaction to a very minor risk. ‘I am very concerned that we have decisions on opening and closing of airports based on a theoretical model,’ he added.

‘There was no evidence of ash in the skies over London yet Heathrow was closed.’

Michael O’Leary, Ryanair’s chief executive, said: ‘It is frankly ridiculous that the flight plans of millions of air passengers are being disrupted on a daily basis by an outdated, inappropriate and imaginary computer-generated model. It is time these charts were done away with.’…

A CAA spokesman said: ‘The Met Office model was predicting ash which was not there when the test flights were done. We have asked the Met Office why their forecast model showed something which was not subsequently backed up.’

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