European airports sent thousands of planes into the sky on Thursday after a week of unprecedented disruptions, but shifting winds sent a new plume of volcanic ash over Scandinavia, forcing some airports in Norway and Sweden to close again.
The new airspace restrictions applied to northern Scotland and parts of southern Norway, Sweden and Finland, said Kyla Evans, spokeswoman for Eurocontrol, the European air traffic agency.
But nearly all of the continent’s 28,000 other scheduled flights, including more than 300 flights on lucrative trans—Atlantic routes, were going ahead. Every plane was packed, however, as airlines squeezed in some of the hundreds of thousands of travellers who had been stranded for days among passengers with regular Thursday tickets.
Airlines said there was no quick solution to cut down the backlog of passengers, for most flights were nearly full anyway and no other planes were available.
“Quite frankly we don’t have an answer to this,” said David Henderson, spokesman for the Association of European Airlines.
The weeklong airspace closures caused by the ash threat to planes represented the worst breakdown in civil aviation in Europe since World War II. More than 100,000 flights were cancelled and airlines are on track to lose over $2 billion.
The aviation crisis that began with the April 14 volcanic eruption in Iceland left millions of passengers in limbo, and the uncoordinated airspace closures by national governments sparked calls for a wholesale reform of Europe’s air traffic management system.
Some travellers got a break. Authorities chartered a luxury cruise ship - the Celebrity Eclipse - to pick up 2,200 tourists in the northern Spanish port of Bilbao on Thursday and bring them back to England. A British Royal Navy ship also arrived in Portsmouth, southern England, carrying 440 troops coming home from Afghanistan and 280 civilians back from Santander, Spain.
Spain arranged for more than 600 special flights - including 316 on Wednesday alone - to help move an estimated 90,000 stranded passengers out over the past three days. Spain has become a magnet for wayward travellers because its airports mostly remained during the crisis.
KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and its partner carriers were temporarily expanding capacity on high—traffic routes from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport in hopes of decreasing the backlog. The routes included New York, San Francisco, Atlanta, Sao Paolo, Dubai, Cairo, Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei and Osaka.
In Germany, Frankfurt and Munich airports reported that about 90 percent of scheduled flights were operating.
All of British airspace was open and major airports such as London’s Heathrow - Europe’s busiest - were operating nearly full schedules. British Airways said all of its flights from London’s Gatwick and City airports would take off, as well as the “vast majority” from Heathrow.
Many trans—Atlantic planes between the United States and Europe were assigned flight paths above the ash cloud that still covered the area east of Iceland. Flying over 35,000 feet (10,670 meters) high, the planes were well above the current maximum altitude of the ash.
The Swedish aviation authority said airspace was still open over the capital of Stockholm, but closed over the southern city of Goteborg because winds did not disperse the ash cloud as forecast. Meanwhile, new ash clouds were blowing in over western Norway, where Stavanger and Bergen airports were closed.
Scientists at Iceland’s meteorological office said the Eyjafjallajokull volcano produced very little ash on Thursday but remained quite active, with magma boiling in the crater. The plume of ash was below 10,000 feet (3 kilometers) and winds were not expected to take it over 20,000 feet.
Geophysicist Steinunn Jakobsdottir said volcanic ash was expected to fall south and southwest of the crater in southern Iceland in the coming days, but would not disrupt air travel between Europe and North America.
The volcano threw up magma chunks the size of cars and sent powerful shock waves into the air as an Associated Press reporter, photographer and television crew flew over it on Wednesday in a helicopter.
In a black crater in the middle of a glacier, red magma thrashed about, propelling steaming blobs of lava onto the surrounding ice. Every so often charges of gas - which surge from deep inside the mountain through the magma and cause tremors 15 miles (25 kilometers) away - exploded in a fireworks show of molten rock.
The air shivered with a constant, menacing growl, like a perpetual clap of thunder. Bolts of lightning shot through the fumes and an eerie glow pervaded the pit of fire.
In response to the flight disruptions, the European Union said it was stepping up work on a new management system known as the “Single European Sky” that should erase national borders.
EU spokeswoman Helen Kearns said Thursday the crisis had exposed serious flaws in the continent-wide air traffic control system. “Consumers and businesses have paid a high price over the past few days for a fragmented patchwork of air spaces,” she said.
The EU has 27 national air traffic control networks, 60 air traffic centres and hundreds of approach centres and towers. The airspace is a jigsaw puzzle of more than 650 sectors.
In contrast, the U.S. air traffic management system is twice as efficient. On any given day, it manages twice the number of EU flights for a similar cost but from only about 20 control centres.
European governments and civil aviation authorities defended their decisions to ground fleets and close the skies - and later to reopen them - against heated accusations by airline chiefs that the decisions were based on flawed data or unsubstantiated fears.
The International Air Transport Association has called on the EU to quickly compensate airlines for lost revenue, much like the U.S. government did following the 9/11 terror attacks.
IATA also demanded that the EU’s strict passenger rights rules - which force airlines to pay for hotels and meals for routine flight delays - be relaxed to reflect the extraordinary nature of the ash crisis.
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