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Updated: April 21, 2010 11:41 IST

Flights resume in Europe but travel chaos not over

AP
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This TV grab shows aeroplanes sitting idle at the Heathrow Airport. Many European flights took to the skies on Tuesday for the first time in days but the travel chaos was far from over.
AP This TV grab shows aeroplanes sitting idle at the Heathrow Airport. Many European flights took to the skies on Tuesday for the first time in days but the travel chaos was far from over.

Europe’s busiest airport reopened on Tuesday as air traffic across the continent lurched back to life. But the gridlock created by Iceland’s volcanic ash plume was far from over: Officials said it would be weeks before all stranded travellers could be brought home.

Passengers wept with relief as flights took off from Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport, Amsterdam and elsewhere. A jetliner from Vancouver, British Columbia, was the first to land at London’s Heathrow airport, the continent’s busiest, since the volcano erupted last week.

British Airways said it expected about two dozen flights from the United States, Africa and Asia to land by early Wednesday.

Travellers cheered as the first European flights took off.

Jenny Lynn Cohen, waiting at Charles de Gaulle to travel to San Francisco, had a boarding pass but could hardly believe she was going to fly.

“I am a little afraid — I am hopeful that the plane will take off, and that it won’t meet with any volcanic ash,” she said.

Chris James, arriving at Heathrow from Mauritius, told the British Broadcasting Corporation that passengers on his flight didn’t know they would land in London until 45 minutes before their plane touched down.

“Initially it was quite a stressful situation, we didn’t know what was happening,” Mr. James said.

The Eurocontrol air traffic agency said it expected just under half of the 27,500 flights over Europe to go ahead on Tuesday, a marked improvement over the last few days. The agency predicted close to normal takeoffs by Friday.

It was the first day since the April 14 eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano — dormant for nearly 200 years — that travellers were given a reason for hope.

“The situation today is much improved,” said Brian Flynn, deputy head of operations at the Brussels-based agency.

Conditions changed fast. Airspace in Germany remained officially closed, but about 800 flights were allowed at low altitude.

Rita and Peter Meyer said they had to share a hotel room with two strangers in Singapore while waiting to find a way home to Germany. News that they could fly to Frankfurt airport came as they slept.

“Just after midnight — after an hour’s sleep — the phone rang (and they said), ‘Everyone downstairs, get in taxis to the airport,”’ Rita Meyer said.

But with more than 95,000 flights cancelled in the last week alone, airlines faced the enormous task of working through the backlog to get passengers where they want to go — a challenge that could take days or even weeks.

Passengers with current tickets were being given priority; those who had been stranded for days were told to either buy a new ticket or take their chances using the old one — a wait that could be days or weeks for the next available seat.

“Once your flight’s cancelled, you go to the back of the queue,” said Laurie Price, director of aviation strategy at consultant Mott Macdonald, who was stranded in Halifax, Canada. “It seems intrinsically unfair.”

The volcano that prompted the turmoil continued to rumble, and tremors could be heard and felt as far as 25 km from the crater.

“It’s like a shaking in the belly. People in the area are disturbed by this,” said Kristin Vogfjord, a geologist at the Icelandic Met Office.

Land and water at farms in the ash zone have suffered since the volcano’s eruption, with normally green pastures turned black and hard by the ash.

Vigtus Andresson said grazing land and water on his farm near the town of Hvolsvollur were contaminated, making it necessary to evacuate many of the horses and sheep he raises there. He said he also must slaughter some of his 29 horses because there is no place for them to go.

Scientists were worried that the eruption could trigger an even larger eruption at the nearby Katla volcano, which sits on the massive Myrdalsjokull icecap. Its last major eruption was in 1918.

“The activity of one volcano sometimes triggers the next one, and Katla has been active together with Eyjafjallajokull in the past,” said Pall Einarsson, professor of geophysics at the Institute of Earth Sciences at the University of Iceland.

Volcano experts say that should such an eruption occur, air travellers might expect more disruptions, depending on prevailing winds. Of Iceland’s eight volcanic eruptions in the last 40 years, only the recent one at Eyjafjallajokull was followed by winds blowing southeast toward northern Europe.

While seismic activity at the volcano had increased, the ash plume appeared to be shrinking — though it wasn’t moving very fast.

Sarah Holland of Britain’s Meteorological office said the plume was being held over Britain by a high pressure system that showed no signs of changing.

“The weather patterns are very static at the moment. It’s unusual to have that for such a long period of time,” she said. “Unfortunately, it looks like it’s going to stay that way for the next couple of days, bringing the ash over the U.K.”

Early on Tuesday, a Eurocontrol volcanic ash map listed the airspace between Iceland and Britain and Ireland as a no-fly zone, along with much of the Baltic Sea and surrounding area.

Still, planes were allowed to fly above 20,000 feet (about 6,000 m) in Britain, ahead of the reopening of airspace nationwide Tuesday evening.

Dozens of flights departed and arrived at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport as the government announced that flights could be carried out in darkness using instruments. Airports in Switzerland, central Europe and Scandinavia also reopened, and some flights took off from Asia headed for southern Europe, where air travel was not affected. Spain piled on extra buses, trains and ferries to handle an expected rush of passengers.

Polish aviation authorities said they planned to reopen the country’s airspace Wednesday morning.

Even the U.S. Air Force was grounded. Capt. Alysia Harvey, the spokeswoman for the U.S. Air Force’s 48th Fighter Wing at Lakenheath, said all sorties had been cancelled there since last Thursday. Lakenheath is the largest U.S. air base in England, and the only one in Europe that has an F-15 fighter wing.

“Flying was cancelled because it’s difficult to predict exactly where the cloud is going to be or the effect it will have on aircraft engines,” she said.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Britons sought a way home.

Britain’s Foreign Office acknowledged the enormity of the problem, informing Britons abroad that it may take a “matter of weeks before everyone can be repatriated.”

Tom and Natalie Smith and their children Ben and Joanne, from Bristol, England, found themselves stranded after spending a week on the Costa Brava in Spain.

“We should have returned to work this morning,” Tom Smith said. “Natalie is a diabetic and so that is also a concern as she may run out of medication depending on how long it takes to get back.”

The government advised Britons to remain in close contact with their airline. Those in Europe were told to make their way to the French port of Calais, other Channel ports or a northern European port.

Thousands converged on the coast from across Europe by car, train and bus, evoking memories for some of the evacuation of the British army from Nazi-occupied France through the port of Dunkirk in 1940.

“You could say it is a bit of Dunkirk spirit,” said Stanley Johnson, father of London mayor Boris Johnson, who was among some 800 soldiers and civilians picked up in Spain by a Royal Navy warship, HMS Albion.

The aviation industry — facing losses of more than $1 billion — has sharply criticized European governments’ handling of the disruption that grounded thousands of flights on the continent.

“I don’t believe it was necessary to impose a blanket ban on all U.K. airspace last Thursday,” said Willie Walsh, chief executive of British Airways, which has cancelled about 500 flights a day in the past five days. “My personal belief is that we could have safely continued operating for a period of time.”

Some carriers were using bigger planes and more flights, while others were hiring buses to help get customers to their destinations.

The U.N.’s International Civil Aviation Organisation said on Tuesday it will start work on setting global standards for the concentration of ashes that could affect airplane engines.

Raymond Benjamin, secretary-general of the U.N. agency responsible for aviation safety, said ICAO convened a special meeting of its governing council on Monday on ash standards following the global disruption to air travel caused by the volcanic eruption.

He said the council decided to convene a group including representatives from industry, manufacturers, governments, scientists, and the International Air Transport Association “to start working on these standards.” Mr. Benjamin spoke to reporters after meeting U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

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