Volcano Ethics: Should we be Flying the Unfriendly Skies?

An ash cloud produced by the eruption of the Eyjafjallajoekull volcano in Iceland has led to the severe disruption of airline transportation in the UK and across a wide swathe of Europe, with UK airspace almost completely closed since midday last Thursday. Passengers, freight importers and exporters, and airlines are just some of those affected by the disruption; some British employers are also taking a hit due to absent workers who went abroad for their Easter holidays and then found themselves stranded and unable to get home. The reasons for grounding the planes are non-trivial: as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) wrote in a press release last week: “Since volcanic ash is composed of very abrasive silica materials, it can damage the airframe and flight surfaces, clog different systems, abrade cockpit windows and flame-out jet engines constituting a serious safety hazard.”

As the airspace closure continues to be extended day after day, however, European airlines and airport officials, no doubt with an eye on their rapidly escalating losses, have begun to express frustration. In a joint press release, the Association of European Airlines and Airports Council International Europe have put pressure on the ICAO and national safety authorities by questioning the proportionality of the flight restrictions currently imposed. Meanwhile, British Airways and other airlines have mounted their own test flights and argue that the completion of these flights without damage to aircraft or other abnormalities shows that “the current blanket restrictions on airspace are unnecessary.”

BA probably would not want to announce to the flying public, in so many words, that it may be making a calculation about the potential risks it considers worth taking versus the potential economic losses it will suffer as a result of not being able to fly at all. But it is reasonable to think that as a business with a responsibility to its shareholders, the airline can be expected to be making just such a calculation. Indeed, BA announcements after the successful test flight do not explicitly deny that there would be any additional risk associated with flying passengers through the existing ash cloud – the company instead says that: “Since … Thursday our assessment is that the risk has been minimal and can be managed by alternative procedures.” [my emphasis]

Is BA acting immorally, then, if it is indeed making a calculated trade-off between its profit (or losses) and risk to passengers, crew and others, however “minimal”, when it presses to be allowed to resume flying? Should the ICAO and other authorities ignore the protestations of anyone with a vested economic interest in the resumption of flights, and continue the flight ban on an indefinite basis until the cloud fully disperses?

For the purposes of the discussion here, let us assume that the cloud does indeed impose at least a minimal level of risk to flights, and that there is no feasible technical solution (e.g. instruments to accurately measure the distribution and composition of dust in localized areas of the cloud and find safe routes through it; engine modifications; changes to flight protocols) that could make it 100% safe to fly in the UK and European airspace affected by the cloud. Then the officials at the ICAO, as well as at the airlines, would surely like an answer to the following question: How much additional risk, if any, imposed on passengers, crew, and others, is morally acceptable?

One tempting answer is that because “safety is paramount”, it follows that no risk at all is morally acceptable. This would lead us to a straightforward answer to the question of whether the flight ban should be lifted: No. But the claim that no risk at all is morally acceptable is unsustainable. Whenever you take a taxi, you expose yourself to some small risks that the taxi driver can control, and some small risks that the taxi driver cannot control (e.g. risk generated by other careless road users). But nobody thinks that, even if he intends to drive carefully and control those risks that are within his power, the taxi driver is obliged to refuse your fare rather than expose you to the further risks that he cannot control. You might think that this is because people in general are to some degree aware of the risks of travelling in taxis, so that passengers can be said to give a kind of informed consent when they pay their fares and take their chances. But in fact, neither informed consent nor consent of any other kind seems necessary in order for it to be morally justifiable for us to expose others to risks, when the risks are insignificant enough. For example, there is always an unavoidable small risk that the driver of a motor vehicle will suffer a sudden seizure and run off the road into a nearby pedestrian. Thus, any driver exposes random pedestrians to a small risk without their consent. But it does not seem morally unjustifiable to impose such risks, so long as they are small enough and we meet our duty to reasonably minimize them. A healthy driver paying due care and attention thus imposes justifiable small risks on others, whereas careless drivers, or those with certain medical diagnoses, would impose larger risks that are not similarly justifiable.

A second possible answer to the question of how much risk is morally acceptable for airline travel is that just the traditionally-accepted level of risk is acceptable. We could support this claim by arguing that the traditionally-accepted level of risk has been established over time by a process of learning from our mistakes and by an extended and painstaking process of reflection within various authorities about the potential costs and benefits of introducing additional safety measures. Most commercial aircraft are required to carry safety cards, life jackets, and rafts in case of a crash landing in the sea, but they are not required to carry emergency containers of fresh water and food in case potential survivors have nothing to eat and drink. This is because the authorities have decided that the additional safety benefits of the latter would be insufficient in comparison to the costs of installing and carrying them on all aircraft.

But the difficulty with this second answer is that the recent volcanic activity may have substantially changed the parameters of the cost-benefit analysis that went into determining the traditionally-accepted level of risk. Given our earlier supposition that there is no feasible technical solution to our present problem, we can conclude that it is not possible to maintain the traditionally-accepted level of risk at any reasonable cost for the time being. This gives us potential grounds for a moral justification for accepting an elevated level of risk on a temporary basis, while the ash cloud persists.

It might be objected that there can be such a thing as too much risk – that is, risk that is not justifiable to impose even in exchange for any level of potential benefits. By analogy, it is unacceptable to drive at 100 miles per hour through a school zone however great the thrill would be for the driver, or however important it is that he reaches his business meeting on time. But we can accept this point while still leaving open the question about whether flying should be permitted through the ash cloud. Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that flights travelling through the cloud would have double the overall risk of a fatal accident as flights in general do. Airlines currently have an excellent safety record, with about one tenth the number of fatalities per passenger mile that road travel has, so even risks that would double the number of fatal plane accidents need not be thought unacceptable in principle. And of course, the level of acceptable risk in a given case will generally depend on how great the costs would be of averting the risk. If the ash cloud were to persist for weeks or months, the costs of not flying to the airlines, to other businesses, and individuals, could be astronomical. Far from ignoring the opinions of BA, the other airlines, and others with economic interests, the ICAO should be taking each of these interests into account in determining whether eliminating the ash cloud risk by banning flying altogether is worth the cost of doing so. Further, we may conclude that the airlines are not acting immorally in pressing their case to the ICAO, so long as they properly take the interests of others into account in drawing their conclusions, rather than focusing purely on their own immediate profit and loss.

Finally, suppose that the ICAO decides that the economic and other costs of disrupted airline travel outweigh the additional risk of flying produced by the ash cloud, and consequently relaxes the restrictions on air travel. I believe that it would then be morally obliged to announce to the public any new relaxation in its safety standards, so that passengers can decide for themselves whether they wish to take the additional risk of flying in present circumstances. But then there is another important question: would airlines be morally obliged to offer a refund to any passengers who have already booked tickets but do not wish to take this additional risk? It is tempting to say that these passengers have not consented to take risks beyond those accepted when they purchased their tickets, and thus should not be forced to bear any costs in deciding not to take such risks: they should be offered unconditional refunds. But surely this interest passengers have must be balanced against the harms that may accrue to the airline industry as a result of such an offer being made. Merely offering refunds would, in itself, have important symbolic value: indicating that the risks at hand are judged to be too large to impose without voluntary consent. It could therefore prompt large numbers of cancellations and undermine confidence in a way that could potentially devastate the industry. It is morally justifiable to balance passengers’ interests in fully free and fully informed consent with the potential harms that could arise from providing for it; consequently, it is not at all clear that refunds should be offered to passengers who do not wish to accept a reasonable level of risk produced by the current circumstances.

Update (Thursday, April 21): While I’m glad to see that the UK air safety athorities are, it seems, reading Practical Ethics blog, it would be better if everyone involved were a bit more forthcoming about why, exactly, our airspace has just been reopened. An interesting article in the Guardian indicates that the airlines have only in the last week decided that flying through ash clouds up to a certain density is not just “safe”, but really, truly, absolutely, 100%, completely safe. What a coincidence it is that their change of mind coincides with their change of economic interest!

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