As volcanic ash clouds flow regardless of borders, international cooperation/coordination is indispensable. Smooth communication between VAACs as well as among all the related organizations is essential in order to ensure safety. It is essential for volcano observatories, MWOs and VAACs to provide information on volcanic eruptions and sequential volcanic ash cloud diffusions to users such as airlines, civil aviation authorities, and relevant organizations in a way that users can grasp the situation easily. Users need to prepare effective risk management procedures and protocols for such cases. Close coordination/communication between information providers and users is required for smooth response against volcanic ash cloud emissions. Both information providers and users need to be prepared for various types of cases considering volcano locations, eruption duration, volcanic ash cloud propagation and coverage, as preferable responses may differ for each type. Adding to such preparation, a language skill is also required. As English is the standard international aviation language, some organizations in non-native English speaking countries encounter a language barrier that makes it difficult to coordinate/communicate smoothly, speedily and in detail.
Therefore, both information providers and users have been undertaking various efforts regarding the requirements, including efforts of eliminating language barriers. This section introduces some of the particular challenges being addressed by them.
When a volcanic ash cloud flows from the area of responsibility of a certain VAAC to another, the responsibility to issue VAAs is to be handed over. This situation frequently occurs between VAACs Tokyo and Anchorage: when a volcano in Kamchatka or Kuril Islands erupts, the volcanic ash cloud often migrates into the area of responsibility of VAAC Anchorage. VAAC Tokyo then hands over its responsibility to VAAC Anchorage. One important aspect to note here is, aircraft need to continue their flights across the Northern Pacific region under a consistent risk management approach, regardless of which VAAC is responsible. Therefore, the forecast extent of volcanic ash clouds in VAA/VAGs from VAAC Tokyo before a handover and from VAAC Anchorage after the handover should not have inconsistencies. Considering the frequent occurrence of a handover as well as the necessity of providing consistent advisories between the two VAACs before and after the handover, there are particular challenges in coordination.
Guideline of handover procedures
VAACs Anchorage and Tokyo have prepared a specific form called “Handover Request Sheet (HRS)” in which necessary items are already included both in English and Japanese (Fig. 5). When a case that requires a handover occurs, the VAACs complete necessary parts on the sheet and exchange it in order to simplify and speed up the procedures. Additionally, the two VAACs, in advance, shared information on decision-making criteria on how and when to conduct handover procedures. This is because the timing to handover may well be different between VAACs depending on the situation, especially when a volcanic ash cloud extends across the areas of responsibility of both VAACs. The criteria have been coordinated and documented as a guideline (Fig. 6) in order that both VAACs can expect beforehand how the other centre will act with volcanic ash clouds moving towards/across the border of their areas of responsibility.
As described in the case study of the eruption of Kliuchevskoi Volcano in 2013, it is not user-friendly if two VAACs provide VAA/VAGs with a volcanic ash cloud area for their own individual areas of responsibility and/or if VAA/VAGs from two VAACs are inconsistent. Therefore, for continuous eruptions, VAACs Anchorage and Tokyo agreed to issue VAA/VAGs from one VAAC as much as possible even after the volcanic ash cloud area extends across the boundary of their areas of responsibility.
For example, when a volcanic ash cloud, due to a continuous eruption at a certain volcano in VAAC Tokyo’s airspace, extends to the east crossing the boundary of the areas of responsibility and covers a large area from the volcano to VAAC Anchorage’s region, VAAC Tokyo continues to issue advisories for the entire volcanic ash cloud until it reaches 180°E so that airlines can grasp the current and future extent of volcanic ash cloud from VAA/VAGs provided by one VAAC (Tokyo). When it crosses 180°, VAAC Tokyo hands over the responsibility to VAAC Anchorage for a part of the volcanic ash cloud which has migrated into VAAC Anchorage’s region. The VAACs cannot avoid providing VAA/VAGs from the two VAACs for a while, but once the eruption ends and the volcanic ash cloud separates from the volcano, VAAC Tokyo immediately conducts a handover for the entire volcanic ash cloud to VAAC Anchorage (Fig. 7).
When a volcanic ash cloud from a continuous eruption at a certain volcano in VAAC Tokyo’s airspace extends to the south crossing the boundary of VAACs Tokyo and Anchorage’s areas of responsibility and/or VAACs Anchorage and Washington’s regions, VAAC Tokyo continues to issue advisories for the entire volcanic ash cloud with necessary coordination with the other two VAACs about the height and extent of the volcanic ash cloud. The timing of handover varies, depending on the situation in this case, but when the eruption ends and the volcanic ash cloud moves to the south separated from the volcano, it is agreed that VAAC Tokyo immediately hands over the responsibility for the entire volcanic ash cloud to VAAC Anchorage, and VAAC Anchorage sequentially conducts a handover to VAAC Washington if the volcanic ash cloud still exists and is moving to the south (Fig. 8).
When a continuous eruption at a certain volcano in VAAC Anchorage’s airspace produces a volcanic ash cloud to the west migrating into VAAC Tokyo’s area of responsibility, VAAC Anchorage will continue issuing VAA/VAGs until it reaches 160°E, though this situation seldom occurs. Then, if the volcanic ash cloud continues moving to the west across 160°E and migrates into VAAC Tokyo’s region, VAAC Anchorage hands over the responsibility for a part of the volcanic ash cloud that crossed 160°E to VAAC Tokyo. In the same way as mentioned previously, once the eruption ends and the volcanic ash cloud moves to the west separated from the volcano, VAAC Anchorage immediately conducts a handover for the entire volcanic ash cloud to VAAC Tokyo (Fig. 9).
Information sharing on decision-making criteria is also done for single (short duration) eruptions and intermittent eruptions. The procedures for single (short duration) eruptions are more straight-forward. VAACs Anchorage and Tokyo agreed to hand over the entire volcanic ash cloud when more than half of it has migrated into the neighbouring VAAC’s area of responsibility. The procedures for intermittent eruptions are also relatively straight-forward, because intermittent eruptions are, as it were, repeated single eruptions. VAACs agreed to repeat the procedures for single eruptions applying to newer ash clouds generated by intermittent eruptions.
Challenge to collaborative decision analysis and forecast via chat system
In order to provide consistent advisories before and after the handover, it is better to share forecasters’ thoughts before volcanic ash clouds actually cross the border of the areas of responsibility, especially for a complicated or exceptional situation. Therefore, VAACs Anchorage and Tokyo have started testing a chat system for closer and more flexible communication. NOAA has provided its proprietary chat system and created an account for this challenge (Osiensky et al. 2014). As part of the test, the VAACs are aiming at finding necessary specific patterns of phenomena as well as phrases of questions and answers corresponding to them, and creating a template like a frequently-asked questions-sheet so that the communication will be smooth between members including non-native English speakers.
The first test was held in July 2014 based on a scenario of the past eruption at Kliuchevskoi in October 2013, in which a volcanic ash cloud moved far southeast. As the VAA/VAGs were not user-friendly in those days as described earlier, the VAACs prepared a scenario following the current guidelines on handover procedures introduced previously that had been established between them in spring 2014, as shown in Fig. 6, and conducted the test. The second test was held in December 2014 based on a scenario of the eruption at Sheveluch in September 2014, in which a volcanic ash cloud moved to the north and where the timing of dissipation was not clear. The third test was held in July 2015 based on a scenario of the eruption at Sheveluch in March 2015, in which a volcanic ash cloud moved to the south and migrated into both VAACs Anchorage and Washington’s areas of responsibility. Not only VAACs Anchorage and Tokyo but also VAAC Washington took part in the third test to check if communication/coordination among the three VAACs would work well via a chat system. After that, operational use of the chat system was utilized on a trial basis instead of through scheduled tests that required coordination ahead of time. If this trial proves to be successful and becomes fully operational in these VAACs, it could be used as a model case and applied to coordination/communication, not only between VAAC Tokyo and other organizations, but between other VAACs and volcano observatories particularly in the area where English is not the native language.
The cooperation/coordination introduced before is undertaken by VAACs essentially as information providers. Considering the importance of international cooperation and coordination mentioned earlier, Volcanic Ash Exercises are conducted in some regions under the framework of ICAO. The first exercise was established in ICAO European and North Atlantic (EUR/NAT) region called the VOLCEX and has been conducted since 2008. Realizing the effectiveness of the VOLCEX, a similar exercise in the EUR (EAST) Region including Kamchatka Peninsula started in 2013 recognising that this region experiences frequent volcanic eruptions that often affect aviation operations especially around the NOPAC routes. Therefore, an exercise in this region, named VOLKAM, has been conducted and is making good progress in coordination procedures between all participating parties (air navigation service providers, air traffic management centres, aeronautical information services, volcano observatories, VAACs, MWOs and users such as airlines). So far, VOLKAM has been held every year: the first exercise was held from 21:00 UTC on January 15, 2013 to 06:00 UTC on January 16, 2013, the second one from 21:00 UTC on March 4, 2014 to 04:00 UTC on March 5, 2014 and the third one from 22:00 UTC on April 15, 2015 to 04:00 UTC on April 16, 2015. The exercises have a different focus each time and participants test new challenges during the exercises (ICAO 2014a, b, 2015a, b; JCAB 2015).
In addition to the volcanic ash exercises, when airlines make a detour at an actual eruption, they need to coordinate with relevant organizations for re-routing. The Cross Polar Trans East Air Traffic Management Providers Working Group (CPWG) is dealing with the topic of international coordination for re-routing and JCAB is one of the members of CPWG.
The following are examples of the challenges being met by participants of the exercises including airlines, and/or members of CPWG.
Determination of a re-route according to a scenario and a matrix on a response for a re-routing request
Once a notification of an eruption is received by a dispatcher, the potential impact to flights that are already en-route is evaluated and if the impact is expected, re-routing procedures will be taken. Re-routing should be conducted immediately because an encounter with a volcanic ash cloud may cause a fatal accident; even a small amount of volcanic ash can cause enormous financial costs with respect to repairing engines and other parts. As all flights in the volcanic ash-affected region undertake re-routing procedures, it should be well organized to accommodate all of them in a limited number of routes, considering the issue of remaining fuel. Additionally, there are regulations and/or restrictions in each State, such that re-routing options are not always accepted. Hence, it is quite effective to prepare a possible contingency route based on an assumed eruption in advance, even if it is a paper-plan and only used during an exercise. As this route has cleared the political issue and other conditions (like a fuel amount), it could be a realistic alternative route in case of a sudden eruption, surely saving time in coordination and implementation.
However, procedures for responding to a request for re-routing are not currently standardized as described in the case study for the eruption of Sarychev-Peak Volcano in 2009; they differ depending on the ANSP. It may be better if a standardized procedure among all ANSPs is prepared, but this is difficult because of various restrictions in each country, and it will take time to achieve. For example, airlines expect re-routing procedures for aircraft in flight to be conducted using the Air Traffic Service Communication (ATSC) via air traffic control centres, while the ground system of air traffic control centres in some countries cannot process re-routing messages from aircraft in flight because transaction between pilots and air traffic controllers are prioritized. Another example is that some countries apply a license system and requires aircraft to obtain permission from an authorized organization when they fly over particular airspaces. If an aircraft requests re-routing over such countries in order to avoid volcanic ash cloud, it needs to obtain permission that will take time. Therefore, before pursuing this ideal to prepare a standardized procedure among all ANSPs, it has been set as a primary goal to create a matrix on each ANSP’s status when it receives a request for re-routing so that airlines can easily grasp the present situation. This work originated from the volcanic ash exercise VOLKAM. Currently the task has been dealt with in the framework of CPWG, so all the members of CPWG including FAA and JCAB can work on this issue. In addition, it is also regarded as an important aspect to consider how to enable organizations related to the matrix to obtain the volcanic eruption information; this is an on-going task as well. The matrix may be tested in VOLKAM sometime in the future once a draft version is prepared (ICAO 2014a, b).
Use of VOLKAM sheet
Similar to the collaborative decision analysis and forecast via a chat system being conducted between VAACs Anchorage, Tokyo and Washington, a spreadsheet named VOLKAM Sheet, prepared by JCAB/ATMC, was workshopped by participants of the volcanic ash exercise in 2015, in an effort to organize relevant information in one sheet chronologically and reduce the issue of language barriers. The VOLKAM Sheet contains chronological information on a present situation for the eruption phase, volcanic ash cloud area, influence in traffic flow and aircraft operations based on the volcanic ash cloud conditions, as well as the information about the expected coordination and actions among the relevant organizations such as a flow control of aircraft, resetting PACOTS and the timing of the next VAA/VAG, and other information issuances. A remarks column is prepared in the sheet in case there are any special notes to share (Fig. 10).
During the exercise, each organization sent this VOLKAM Sheet to all participants via e-mail, with an organization name and a version number so that everybody understood which spreadsheet was the latest one to add new information about the present situation and/or planned actions. The usability of this sheet to improve situation awareness among the relevant organizations was tested during the exercise in 2015. The participants understood the idea that it would be better to prepare a communication method rather than a phone call, considering that they respectively have three languages as a native tongue, English, Russian and Japanese. When a spreadsheet with necessary information is shared, the merits are that it can at least avoid mishearing and misunderstanding, and the participants can read what was discussed again later.
The exercise in 2015, which tested the usability of written information on the VOLKAM sheet, highlighted areas for improvement. One prospect for improvement is to share the information via a website rather than a spreadsheet. The website would have access limited only to relevant organizations, where participants would have the ability to directly edit and update the website ensuring it remains current with the latest information.