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The real price of cost cutting

A scientific report on last year’s ash cloud from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruption in Iceland shows that air traffic controllers were right to close European airspace despite loud protests from airline leaders.

Already in a deep crisis, and facing further losses due to the temporary safety shutdown, Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary, BA chief executive Willie Walsh and boss of Virgin Richard Branson lashed out at the civil aviation authority.

Their bluster revealed much about the dangerous thought processes of the leaders of capitalist enterprises conditioned by the competitive chase for profit-driven ‘economic efficiency’.

Blinded by the bottom-line, O'Leary said at the time that "there was no ash cloud. It was mythical. It's become evident the airspace closure was completely unnecessary... none of us could see a bloody thing." He added: "Some idiot in a basement in the Met Office in London spills coffee over the map of Europe and produces a big black cloud." Walsh portrayed the closure as a "gross over-reaction to a very minor risk" and Branson described the final set of closures as "beyond a joke".

Now, the study by Sigurdur Gislason and colleagues at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik shows the extent of their foolishness. "The particles of explosive ash that reached Europe in the jet stream were especially sharp and abrasive over their entire size range," the scientists say in their study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"The very sharp, hard particles put aircraft at risk from abrasion on windows and body and from melting in jet engines," the scientists said. "Concerns for air transport were well grounded."

The scientists found that even after the particles had been mixed continually in water for two weeks, they retained their ability to be dangerous to exposed aircraft surfaces. If the authorities had given in to the airlines’ leaders’ ferocious assault, serious structural damage to aircraft could have occurred if passenger planes had continued to fly.

Tests on the ash revealed that it contained minute particles of glass so sharp and abrasive they could have damaged the exposed surfaces of any aircraft, including the engines and cockpit windows.

The consequences could have been far worse than that for the British Airways 747 which suffered potentially catastrophic damage when it flew through an ash cloud from the 1982 eruption of Mount Galunggung in Indonesia. All four of its engines failed as a result of melted ash on the aircraft's turbine blades, but the pilot managed to restart three of them after descending.

In this case disaster was averted. But the same has not been true for the Mexican Gulf or Japan where bottom-line competitive pressures overrode safety concerns.
BP is trying to pass the responsibility for the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion to Transocean Ltd, the owner of the rig, and to Halliburton who built it.

At the heart of the failure was the decision to reduce by three quarters the number of concrete collars engineers said were needed to stabilise the drill. Transocean just gave its top executives bonuses for achieving what it described as the “best year in safety performance in our company’s history”.

Cost-cutting by Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), the largest private producer of electricity in the world, was sanctioned by a corrupt and bureaucratic regulatory system. Maintenance programmes were side-stepped for years.

Tepco’s Fukushima nuclear reactor site was destroyed by a once in a hundred years earthquake and the tsunami it triggered, irradiating the people of Japan once again. These three events shed a blinding light on the dangers of allowing the world’s productive capacity to remain in capitalist ownership.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor
29 April 2011

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