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The volcanic ash panic is just the latest example of risk misjudgment

I am no expert on jet engines, but my suspicions from the very
beginning that the European authorities were over-reacting to
Iceland’s ash cloud are hardening with every day. Of course flying
into an actual ash plume is dangerous, but that does not make a
well dispersed haze of ash dangerous.

It now turns out Europe’s reaction was more extreme than
America’s would have been. And airlines are increasingly calling
the bluff of the aviation authorities by doing test flights.
Politicians have been characteristically slow and useless. See here:

The International Air Transport
Association…expressed its “dissatisfaction with how governments
have managed it, with no risk assessment, no consultation, no
coordination, and no leadership”

Like all civil servants the aviation authorities are tasked with
looking at only one risk in isolation. Yet as always there is a
balance of risk. The risk of aeroplanes failing is balanced every
normal day against the risk of not having imported food, imported
medical supplies, a job, a chance to visit friends abroad or
whatever. That flying a plane carries risks does not mean that you
do not fly planes. How big a risk?

As Richard North diagnoses, there’s a computer
model fetish at work here, too:

Once again, therefore, it looks as if
ministers have been asleep on the job, letting the techies play
with their computer models, without adequate supervision. But the
real fault goes back to 2009 when the disastrously inadequate IACO
contingency plan was agreed, lacking precisely the “risk
assessment” that Bisignani is now calling for. The reliance on this
and the Met Office
with its computer models has produced a mix far more toxic and
damaging than any volcanic cloud, seemingly beyond the reach of
ministers. As with global warming, and Foot & Mouth in 2001,
they appear to be besotted with computer models, rejecting
real-world experience for the allure of glitzy graphics and

And this is now a systematic problem. Every scare is magnified,
every inconvenience and hardship from the over-reaction is ignored.
Not a single bureaucrat has been taken to task for the grotesque
over-reaction to swine flu last year. There’s an attempt to blame
it on the pharmaceutical industry. But where Big Pharma could not
believe its luck, it was the WHO bureaucrats and their national
poodles who ordered the vaccines and the one-sided press

For an aviation bureaucrat there is simply no down side to
closing down a country’s air space. That’s the trouble with command
and control systems. Let the airlines decide whether it is safe to

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist