Why Volcanic Ash Is So Terrible for Airplanes

August 22, 2014 12:04 PM

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The Barðarbunga volcano in Iceland is showing signs of a potential eruption, sparking fears among airline executives that they could be facing another Eyjafjallajökull, whose 2010 eruption forced airlines to avoid huge swathes of airspace and lose billions of dollars. The risk posed to aircraft by airborne volcanic ash is as bad as ever, but airlines are better equipped to spot and avoid trouble—and save money—than they were four years ago.

The problem is that volcanic ash is simply terrible for airplanes. Made of up tiny glass particles and pulverized rock, it can be spewed tens of thousands of feet into the air, reaching jet cruising altitude. It’s abrasive enough to erode the blades of the compressor (which increases the pressure of...

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