The case study serves two additional objectives. First, despite the magnitude and costs of the eruption for the aviation industry, this case has thus far only received sparse attention in public policy research (Alemanno 2010), which calls for additional empirical studies into this particular episode. Second, the European 2010 volcanic ash cloud experience is a useful case to meet the need for more empirical research on transnational crises addressing the conditions for cooperative solutions to large-scale international disruptions in the context of European governance (Rhinard 1997).
The case analysis was conducted in three steps: (i) initial documentation of the policy subsystem; (ii) identification of key decisions and stakeholders involved in the crisis response; and (iii) exploration of assumptions posited by the ACF. Empirical sources used for each step include official policy documents, media reports, and secondary sources. Thus, in the absence of more detailed data, the conclusions remain tentative. Another limitation stems from ACF's recommendation that a period of ten years or more is needed to analyze policy subsystems. However, this recommendation is applicable to some research questions (e.g. the long-term stability of coalitions) but not to others. Thus, in practice, prior ACF studies take different time-spans into consideration, confirming the methodological pluralism characterizing ACF scholarship (Sabatier and Weible 1998).
Policy subsystems as unit of analysis
Policies related to European civil aviation safety are dealt with within the framework of what has been described as an international air traffic ‘subsystem’ (Aspinwall 2004), which is characteristically ‘a good case of technocratic, functionally oriented low politics expanding beyond the EU's borders’ (Lavenex 2010, p. 948). Aviation safety policy within the European Union is based on collaboration between the European Commission (Directorate General for Mobility and Transport), the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation (Eurocontrol), EU member state civil aviation authorities, aircraft manufacturers, and the airlines. In addition, these actors engage in continuous dialogue with international aviation safety organizations, including the International Air Transport Association (IATA), an international trade body and lobby organization representing some 230 airline companies, and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which is the agency of the United Nations responsible for standards and practices related to civil aviation.
Organizations representing various branches of the airline industry form a network of specialized interest groups representing cargo carriers, airports, traffic control systems, aircraft manufacturers, pilots, and low-cost carriers. Most of these organizations work actively together with different EU institutions but they also collaborate to lobby for aviation industry interests. For example, IATA and the Association of European Airlines (AEA) lobbied against regulatory reform in the 1970s and since then in support of the Single European Sky initiative, which aims to increase European coordination of airspace regulation and create a unified European system for air traffic management (Dobson 2010, p. 14).
In theory, advocacy coalitions are composed of actors that share common beliefs and engage in coordinated activity (Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith 2010). Applied in the area of European aviation policy, two coalitions can be identified. The first coalition – the ‘airline industry coalition’ – is populated by interest organizations collaborating to promote the various interests of the airline transport industry. In the volcanic ash cloud crisis, these groups were also supported by some individual members of the European Parliament. The most influential organizations in this coalition include IATA, AEA, ACI (the Airports Council International), and CANSI (Civil Air Navigation Service Organization).
These organizations have different functions; whereas CANSI is primarily a forum for discussion on matters related to air traffic management issues, IATA, AEA, and ACI are traditional lobbying organizations serving the interests of their members. Coordination ranges from informal cooperation through continuous exchange of knowledge, expertise and best practice, to more formalized forms of coordination, such as IATA's and AEA's joint resistance against regulatory reform in the 1970s, and to influence in passing the Single European Sky Initiative in the early 2000s (Dobson 2010, p. 14). Similarly, some of these organizations (AEA and ACI) questioned the efficiency of the EASA following its creation in 2003.
The second coalition – that may be labelled the ‘aviation regulation coalition’ – is formed by organizations controlling supranational legislative venues within the EU system. These include the European Commission, some members of Parliament, EASA, and Eurocontrol. These organizations are bound together by their respective roles in the implementation of aviation transport and safety policy. Eurocontrol is a special body in this respect; it is not a formal EU organization but an intergovernmental organization composed of 38 member states across Europe (with the European Commission being a provisional member), which, however, has developed close ties to the EU Commission and EASA through the Single European Sky Initiative (European Commission 2003; Lavenex 2010, p. 947).
As noted above, policy subsystems may be unitary (single coalition), collaborative (cooperative coalitions), or adversarial (competitive coalitions) (Weible 2009). In recent years, the European aviation policy subsystem has been predominantly collaborative in nature. Tensions between the airline industry and European Community organizations in the 1970s and 1980s related to airline liberalization were gradually relaxed in the 1990s. Since then the relationship has been characterized by ‘participatory, inclusive and horizontal co-operation structures’, notably in the area of aviation security policy (Lavenex 2010, p. 948). While some confrontation has occurred, the subsystem has predominantly been characterized by collaboration. Interaction between members of the two coalitions, it seems, has taken place through a ‘productive analytical debate’ marked by continuous exchange of ideas, experience, and knowledge (Sabatier 2010, p. 155).
Collaboration, as the ACF suggests, is facilitated by the existence of several professional forums (Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith 2010). One such forum is the European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC). Acting to harmonize and promote the understanding of European aviation policies and practices, the ECAC maintains close cooperation with European Union institutions as well as with airline industry organizations. Other forums enabling exchange of information between the airline industry and European Union institutions are the Industry Consultation Board, which provides technical advice to the European Commission on the implementation of the Single European Sky Initiative, and the Provisional Council of Eurocontrol, which includes several organizations representing the airline industry, among them ACI, AEA, IATA, and CANSO.
One important effect of a crisis on subsystems is the disruption of pre-existing relationships between participants (Nohrstedt and Weible 1988). One scenario is that interaction among subsystem participants shifts from collaborative to adversarial (Weible 2009). Sources indicate that the 2010 volcanic ash cloud crisis temporarily changed interaction in the European aviation policy subsystem towards confrontation. During the first days following the volcano eruption on 14 April 2010, the main problem facing European airports was basically to decide when it was safe to fly again. Decision-makers faced a trade-off between escalating financial losses of the airlines (approximately 30 million dollars per day during the standstill; see Mazzocchi et al. 2008) and aviation safety concerns. A few days into the crisis, the continued closure of European airspace became the main bone of contention between the airlines, the IATA, and other interest organizations on one side and the European Commission, Eurocontrol, and other organizations on the other side. This dispute illustrates how disagreements triggered by diverging interpretations of technical information can evolve in a crisis.
The role of scientific information
The European aviation safety system is founded on a set of rules laying down common standards for a large range of issues related to aviation safety, such as aircraft certification and manufacturing, flight operation, maintenance, and crew licensing. When it comes to airspace regulation, operational decisions to open or close national airspace are based upon risk assessment models agreed by Member States under ICAO guidelines. The actual decision to open or close national airspace is thus entirely national; it is made by national authorities and implemented by Eurocontrol which approves flight plans according to available airspace (European Commission 2010a). ICAO guidelines are set out from a strict precautionary principle, stating that ‘the recommended procedure in the case of volcanic ash is exactly the same as with low-level wind shear, regardless of ash concentration: AVOID AVOID AVOID’ (ICAO 2007, ch. 3, p. 19). In practice, the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC) in London monitors eruptions and provides assessments of the concentration and movement of volcanic ash clouds in the area covering the United Kingdom, Iceland, and the north-eastern parts of the North Atlantic Ocean.
Highly specialized policy subsystems such as European aviation safety are often prone to biased assimilation where stakeholders with different beliefs and interests will interpret evidence differently. Belief systems serve as perceptual filters that screen out dissonant information and reaffirm confirming information (Sabatier and Weible 1998, p. 194). In the 2010 volcanic ash crisis, the conflict partly originated in disagreement about data gathering practices and substantive interpretation of the available information. On 18 April, at a point when over 300 European airports were paralyzed and some 6.8 million passengers were stranded throughout the world, several organizations publicly criticized the European Commission for its response to the situation.
IATA's Director-General and CEO, Giovanni Bisignani, criticized the analytic methods employed by VAAC to confirm the presence of ash in European airspace: ‘Europeans are still using a system that's based on a theoretical model instead of taking a decision based on facts and risk assessment’ (Hough et al. ). IATA suggested an alternative approach, to ‘use data from test flights and pilot/maintenance reports and improve the quality of predictive products’ (IATA 2010a). AEA, ACI, and the International Air Carrier Association (IACA) made similar claims and declared that they had lost confidence in the VAAC and its measurement methods (IACA 2010). European airspace authorities were also criticized for ignoring post-flight aircraft and engine inspections conducted by the airlines, which allegedly would provide ‘hard facts’ on the amount of ash.
The European Commission, Eurocontrol, and other actors initially interpreted the situation differently. EU Commission representatives emphasized that any actions related to the airspace shut-down should be based on ‘scientific evidence and expert analysis’ and with no compromise on safety (European Commission 2010b). However, as the flying bans continued and under the threat of another week of costly disruption, the EU Commission, together with Eurocontrol and the Spanish presidency, started to question the current risk assessment approach.
The dilemma facing the EU Commission was that no Member State could act independently to depart from the strict precautionary approach prescribed by ICAO guidelines (Alemanno 2010, p. 3). In response, the Commission, Eurocontrol, Member States, national authorities, national air traffic controllers and representatives of the airline industry collectively reassessed the risk assessment model and concluded ‘that a more differentiated approach was needed’ (European Commission 2010a, p. 2). EU transport ministers thereby agreed on a revised approach that created three fly zones defined according to different levels of risk (one ‘no-fly zone’, one zone where decisions to fly were to be made jointly by Member State authorities, and one zone with no flight restrictions).
While the new approach relaxed existing flying restrictions, it relied upon the pre-existing risk assessment model implemented by Eurocontrol. One additional feature, however, was that the VAAC/Eurocontrol risk assessment model should be complemented with inspection results from aircraft and engine manufacturers regarding aircraft and engines operated in airspace contaminated by volcanic ash (European Commission 2010c, p. 3). Thus, while relying upon pre-existing routines for risk assessment, the Commission also implemented a differentiated approach in accordance with the suggestions of the airline industry.
Competing crisis narratives
In the midst of a crisis, advocacy coalitions can be expected to pursue conflicting narratives about the underlying causes and allocation of responsibility for escalation and de-escalation of crises (Boin et al. 2007; Shanahan et al. 2011). In this case, however, the public debate indicates that the two advocacy coalitions initially agreed on the severity of the situation. The European Commission described the shutdown of European airspace as ‘an unprecedented crisis facing Europe’ and an ‘extraordinary event’ that called for new ways of thinking about the coordination of European crisis management capacities to open up airspace and to find solutions for stranded passengers and the airline industry (Press Statement, Siim Kallas, 19 April 2010). IATA confirmed this description, arguing that the scale of the crisis for Europe exceeded the impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 which closed US airspace for three days (IATA 2010b). AEA and ACI, however, took a different stance, arguing that the eruption was not an unprecedented event and that the European response was disproportionate in comparison with similar events in other parts of the world (AEA/ACI 2010).
While the coalitions overall agreed on the seriousness of the crisis, their views differed substantially concerning the effectiveness of the EU's crisis response. IATA, AEA, and ACI criticized the way the European community had handled the shutdown of European airspace. ‘This is a European embarrassment and it's a European mess’, said Bisignani when accusing the EU of lacking an effective decision-making process for the handling of ash clouds and other disruptions in civil aviation. Furthermore, Bisignani argued that it was ‘absolutely inexcusable’ that EU transport ministers did not convene more often to mitigate the effects of the shutdown on European business and travel (IATA 2010c).
When the air traffic disruption was debated in the European Parliament on 20 April, several Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) backed the view of IATA, AEA, and ACI by questioning the European Union's preparedness for natural disasters. Philip Bradbourn (European Conservatives and Reformists Group) argued, for example, that the EU's response to the crisis had been like ‘licking a finger and sticking it in the air to see what way the wind is blowing’ (European Parliament 2010). Other MEPs defended the European crisis response. Representing the Socialists, Martin Schulz argued that the decision to close airspace and ground aircraft was absolutely necessary with reference to safety considerations. Similarly, Greens/EFA party group leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit rejected claims of an EU over-reaction to the crisis as absurd, saying that ‘the risk was too great so, yes, the response to the crisis was about right’ (Banks 2010).
European Commission representatives publicly defended the actions taken during the crisis. According to EU Commission Vice-President Siim Kallas, the way the EU responded to the crisis showed that ‘Europe can deliver results’ (European Commission 2010b). In his view, ‘to say that the European model completely failed is totally wrong’ (European Parliament 2010). Also in response to the criticism, the EU Commission publicly emphasized that the revised risk assessment approach in fact helped in de-escalating the crisis: ‘if it was NOT for the European Commission intervention since the end of last week, large parts of Europe's skies would still be unnecessarily closed’ (European Commission 2010a, p. 3).
Mobilization of political resources and policy venues
Prior ACF research shows that advocacy coalition members will exploit a variety of political resources to influence public policymaking (Ingold 2011; Nohrstedt 2006). Key resources include actors in positions of legal authority, public opinion, information, mobilizable supporters, financial resources, and skillful leadership. Also, coalition members constantly seek access to key venues. External shocks and particularly crises have great potential to change the distribution of political resources and the conditions for venue exploitation (Sabatier and Weible 1998; Nohrstedt and Weible 1988).
Within the framework of the ACF, Weible (2008) outlines three different uses of information in the policy process: learning, political, and instrumental. Whereas learning according to the ACF definition refers to the gradual accumulation of knowledge over time, political and instrumental uses of scientific information are highly relevant for the understanding of policy conflict during destabilizing crisis episodes. As discussed above, a major issue of disagreement during the volcanic ash crisis related to the production and interpretation of scientific data about the level and diffusion of ash contamination in European airspace. In the public debate that followed IATA, AEA, ACI, and other organizations' criticism of the European risk assessment approach, members of both coalitions utilized technical information to argue against each other's views. From this perspective, scientific information was used for both instrumental and political purposes. Instrumental use of information refers to the use of expert-based information to solve policy problems and thus has a direct impact on policymaking. This was obviously the case in the response to the volcanic ash crisis, where the VAAC risk assessment was the primary source of information for decisions to close and open European airspace.
The volcanic ash crisis provides additional insight into how stakeholders mobilize scientific information to counter arguments by their opponents (political use of information). One example is the data generated by the test flights conducted by the airlines that was used by representatives of the airline industry coalition as the baseline to argue against continued closure of European airspace. Several airlines, including Air France, British Airways, KLM, and Lufthansa, conducted their own test flights in areas identified by the VAAC as having potential presence of ash, but reported no mechanical irregularities related to the ash (Times Newline, 19 April 2010). Airline representatives argued that the tests, about 40 in total, should be used to validate the model utilized by VAAC and Eurocontrol. Opponents of this view argued that safety concerns surpassed considerations to reopen airspace based on test flight results (European Parliament 2010, remark by Christine De Veyrac, PPE).
Meanwhile, representatives of Eurocontrol and the EU Commission argued that test flight information had reached Eurocontrol but that their experts needed time to validate the results against other sources of information (BBC News 2010a; European Parliament 2010, remark by Siim Kallas). Furthermore, the director of operations of Eurocontrol, Brian Flynn, questioned the airline industry's interpretation of the results, saying that the flights ‘have shown results where there is no evidence whatsoever of volcanic ash and they have also shown clear evidence that there is presence of volcanic ash’ (BBC News 2010b).
Sources indicate that the decision to relax airspace restrictions was the result of revised perceptions among safety regulation experts regarding the level of aircraft engine tolerance to ash. The decision by European transport ministers on 19 April to introduce the ‘three-zone solution’ was based solely on joint conclusions of European aircraft specialists. In a series of preparatory meetings coordinated by Eurocontrol (the Central Flow Management Unit), European aircraft safety specialists convened to agree on a common safety envelope defining the actual impact of ash on aircraft engines (Eurocontrol 2010; Spanish Presidency of the European Union 2010).
The volcanic ash crisis revealed a gap in existing European contingency planning as it showed that predefined certification standards for volcanic ash were lacking. In response, specialists agreed on setting a tolerable limit for ash concentration to 4000 µg/m3 – a level which established a large margin of safety in relation to previous ash-related incidents (European Commission 2010c). This estimate, in which aircraft and engine manufacturers played a key role, provided scientific support for the decision to relax airspace restrictions (BBC News 2010a). This example illustrates the dynamics of intra-crisis learning (Moynihan 2010). Specifically, it shows that scientific information can accumulate rapidly and serve as the basis for policy change under conditions of threat, urgency, and uncertainty.
Minority advocacy coalitions not in a position to change policy can be expected to engage in ‘venue shopping’; that is, to try to move decision-making authority to a different institutional setting (Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith 2010, p. 142). External shocks are likely to change the conditions for policy influence by opening or closing venues (Sabatier and Weible 1998). Although other types of data would be required to investigate more carefully different actors' access to various decision settings in this case, the tentative conclusion based on publicly available sources is that the volcanic ash crisis did not change the conditions for venue access. Actors representing the aviation industry coalition did not access settings where key decisions about crisis resolution were made. Actions taken to mitigate the effects of the crisis were decided by the EU Council of Transport Ministers and by different constellations of actors within the European community of aviation safety specialists.
A coordinating body was formed on an ad hoc basis, consisting of representatives from the EU, the Commission, Eurocontrol, the Spanish Presidency, and EASA. Sources suggest that the core members of the aviation industry coalition – including IATA, ACI, and AEA – were not granted access to these decision settings. Neither did they participate in the preparatory meetings hosted by Eurocontrol preceding decisions by the transport ministers. Instead, minority coalition organizations resorted to well-tried venues. IATA, for example, turned to ICAO a few days into the crisis in an attempt to speed up the process of defining government responsibility for airspace regulation and to certify clearer guidelines concerning levels of ash concentration (IATA press release, 19 April). IATA and ICAO have a history of close collaboration in areas of safety and environmental performance (Jönsson 2010, p. 47), and this platform offered an important venue for IATA to push for its claims about a revised risk assessment approach in the wake of the volcanic ash crisis.
Opportunism and policy change
It is argued that crises open proverbial windows of opportunity for stakeholders to pursue changes that under normal conditions are not possible to realize. Crises have the potential to change problem representations, which in turn can change the perceived necessity of policy change and reforms. Crisis-induced policy changes, however, are unlikely to be the result of the emergence of new beliefs or new ways of thinking about problems and solutions. Rather, crises are more likely to ‘reinvigorate attention to preexisting ideas’ (Birkland 2006, p. 165). This is consistent with the premise of the ACF that policy core beliefs are resistant to change. Several developments in this case confirm these expectations.
First, the crisis changed the conditions for the Single European Sky initiative (SES), which illustrates the role crisis plays in re-actualizing pre-existing ideas. The underlying objective of the SES initiative is to foster integration of European airspace design, management, and regulation by increased EU coordination. Steps in this direction have been taken by the SES I (in force 2004) and SES II (in force 2008) legislative packages. However, prior to the crisis the process had been stalled by EU Member States' reluctance to give up control of national airspace. SES II relaxed some of the resistance but its implementation progressed slowly. To many stakeholders, the volcanic ash cloud crisis underlined the necessity to accelerate implementation of SES II. This was an issue that IATA, AEA, ACI, and other airline industry organizations had lobbied for intensively in the past, and these organizations renewed their calls during the crisis, urging EU Member States to enable swift implementation of SES II (ELFAA 2010; IATA 2010d). Similarly, the EU Commission gave acceleration of SES the ‘highest priority’ and outlined several specific actions to be decided by EU Transport Ministers (European Commission 2010d).
Implementation of SES II was relatively uncontroversial and a common objective for both coalitions. The history of the SES initiative suggests that both the airline industry coalition and the aviation regulation coalition turned against the unwillingness of (some) EU Member States to facilitate its implementation. On this basis, the fact that EU Transport Ministers on 4 May jointly agreed to fast-track SES provided the necessary political support to facilitate its implementation. Some disagreements related to SES details persisted between the coalitions even after the crisis, with the IATA calling for additional actions beyond those sanctioned by the Transport Ministers (IATA 2010d), but overall representatives of both coalitions collectively supported its progress. Increased political support for the SES initiative paved the way for swift implementation of several minor reforms. The Commission declared that it would also speed up establishment of Functional Airspace Blocks (FAB) and implementation of a performance scheme to monitor the progress of air navigation services in the single European Sky. The Commission took immediate action to realize these objectives by supporting the nomination of a FAB coordinator (European Commission 2010c).
Second, both coalitions shared the view that the volcanic ash crisis had exposed gaps in the European capacity to respond to a major trans-boundary crisis, which in turn paved the way for several minor reforms related to crisis preparedness. One such reform was to formalize a European crisis coordination cell. In response to the crisis, several European organizations – the Commission, Eurocontrol, the Presidency, and EASA – convened on an ad hoc basis. EU Transport Ministers concluded on 4 May that there was a need to make this structure permanent to coordinate the response to future crises. This led to the creation of the European Aviation Crisis Coordination Cell (EACCC) on 11 May. Members of both coalitions furthermore emphasized the need to reform current European and international systems for risk assessment. As a consequence, the Commission launched an inventory of ongoing research and technology projects to identify knowledge resources that could be of use to develop pre-existing risk assessment methodologies. The EU Commission furthermore realized the importance of reforming ICAO guidelines and prepared the submission of a proposal for a new ICAO regulatory framework (European Commission 2010c, 2010e).