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Airline creates ash cloud to test planes

EasyJet creates a man-made ash cloud
EasyJet creates a man-made ash cloud

There may be a stereotype that budget airlines are only interested in cutting costs and filling seats, but easyJet announced on Wednesday that it had invested in a very specific type of aircraft safety.

The budget airline said it had successfully created the world's first man-made ash cloud, which it used to test aircraft performance in October.

It comes after the eruption of an Icelandic volcano and subsequent ash cloud in 2010, which resulted in the closure of most European airspace for six days. More than 100,000 flights were cancelled, costing the aviation industry around $2.6 billion, according to the Institute of Earth Sciences in Iceland.

(Read more: Iceland's volcano ash spawns wider flight chaos)

The experiment by easyJet, and its partners Airbus and Airbus and Nicarnica Aviation, was designed to test a new piece of technology called the AVOID (Airborne Volcanic Object Identifier and Detector).

Speaking to CNBC, Ian Davies, easyjet's engineering director, said the AVOID sensor was different to other types of tools attempted by its competitors.

"From my knowledge, all the competitor technologies are about when you're in an ash cloud that's invisible, what is the concentration?" he said. "Our technology is based on the simple principal that we do not actually want to get into ash. And consequently, having 10 to 20 minutes notification of where it is and that you may enter into it is better for us."

(Read more: EasyJet sharessoar as rivals falter)

He added: "So we're not saying our technology is any better or worse than anybody else's. It's just different. And we think that it's a better and more positive way to go about ensuring that we do not get into a situation where we enter ash."

As part of the test, an Airbus plane dispersed one tonne of Icelandic ash into the atmosphere at between 9,000 and 11,000 feet over the Bay of Biscay, recreating similar conditions to the 2010 eruption. A second Airbus aircraft - equipped with the AVOID technology - flew towards the ash cloud, and successfully identified it and measured its density from 60km away, easyJet said.

But Davies was quick to point out that AVOID is not the only answer to avoiding a repeat of 2010, when he said cost easyJet £55 million because of the airspace closure.

"This is one element of a suite of tools such as satellite technology, modelling and visual observations that will help us manage future disruption," Davies said.

(Read more: Ryanair safety concerns: Genuine or joke?)

He added that easyJet was also open to sharing the AVOID technology. "We're doing this for our own airline initially," he began, adding, "Obviously we want to avoid getting in to the situation as we did in 2010, but the technology will be available to other airlines. In fact, we want to partner with them."

"We also want to partner with the transport systems such as Eurocontrol, so that other airlines and in fact the entire transport system in Europe can be safe guarded if we have a big eruption in the future."

EasyJet is Europe's second biggest budget airline behind Ryanair by market value and operates over 200 aircraft on more than 600 routes. Davies said that the company hopes to fit the volcanic ash detection equipment on some of its planes by the end of 2014.