The British Airline Pilots' Association (BALPA) has called for a four stage co-ordinated response to the crisis in air transport caused by the continuing closure of airspace.

Firstly on the decision making that has lead to closure. NATS will not have taken this decision lightly and BALPA can only respect their decision – we are fans of caution. However this is not the first volcanic eruption that there has been in the world, but it is the first time that there has been the closure of so much airspace, for such a prolonged period and with no end in sight. Aviation safety thrives in an open culture and we are asking:

1. Whether the Met Office and NATS have opened their assumptions to peer review by other authorities elsewhere in the world, many of whom will have had practical experience of dealing with ash clouds caused by eruptions?

2. What criteria will be used to decide if it is again safe to open the airspace? Will it continue to be based on computer modelling, will practical experience be brought to bear; what further testing do the decision makers need?

BALPA General Secretary Jim McAuslan said: ‘These are important questions. Pilots’ ultimate responsibility under the Air Navigation Order (our equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath) is for the safe transport of passengers. Pilots will want to know on what basis the decision to re-open is being taken. To help us get there we are willing to help analyse the current data, identify gaps and provide an aviators’ input. We can field expertise; all we need is to be asked’.

Secondly on getting people home. It is not an exaggeration to say that a Dunkirk spirit is needed. Even when the skies are opened, aircraft will be in the wrong place all over the world. British pilots, many of whom have themselves been stranded away from home, will do everything they can to bring the situation back to normal as quickly as possible whilst maintaining the highest standards of flight safety. Doing this effectively will need a joined up approach across airlines.

Thirdly, on the short term financial impact which could not be more serious for an industry already reeling from the economic downturn. A number of airlines are now staring bankruptcy in the face and if their aircraft are subsequently grounded tens of thousands of people will be marooned abroad. The Government needs to step in and show the same approach it took to keeping banks afloat; if it fails to act it will find that an equally important foundation of our economy is lost. The EU also needs to act as their delayed passenger compensation scheme was never designed with this situation in mind and is now crippling our industry. Jim McAuslan said: ‘the financial fall out from this could not be more serious. The experience we had when XL went under was only a taster of what we now face.’

Finally the long term impact. BALPA has today written to the main party leaders (whose manifestoes all propose major tax rises for aviation) asking them to rethink their attitudes to aviation and the critical role it plays for UK plc. In the letter BALPA is also asking each leader to commit to a review of the practical steps that need to be taken to prepare ourselves for events such as this in the future.

Jim McAuslan, BALPA General Secretary, said: 'This issue is in danger of getting out of hand. We call on the Government to urgently bring together the key players from across the industry to ensure the risk assessment that has lead to the continuing closure of airspace is robust, that there are a range of rescue packages in place to repatriate the travelling public and that there is targeted financial help to nurse the industry through this crisis.’”