An unprecedented 17,000 flights were grounded as drifting volcanic ash cloud forced a no-fly-zone over almost whole of Europe shutting down major hubs including, London, Paris and Frankfurt, stranding millions of travellers.

For the third day in succession the massive drifts of volcanic ash blanketed European airspace, with risks that it may linger on for up to five more days.

The black plume, forced countries to extend bans on most flights, with Air Traffic Control in Britain, Germany, Denmark, Nordic countries, France and most of Eastern European countries, announcing that no flights would operate till Sunday.

The thick clouds left hundreds of thousands of air passengers stranded all over Europe and Asia including India.

As many as 17,000 flights out of Europe’s usual 28,000 were cancelled as the airspace remained totally empty over northern Europe and scientists warned that the volcanic activity had increased in Iceland which could cause more disruption.

The grounding of major airliners was costing the industry at least $ 200 million a day, according to an IATA spokesman.

The flying ash also affected airlines in US where 280 out of the 330 transatlantic flights were cancelled. Air traffic control officials said they still were not sure when the flights would return to normal.

Poland said it was shutting all airports till further notice, which could throw into doubt the arrival of world leaders including US President Barack Obama who was due to fly to the southern city of Krakow on Sunday to attend the funeral of Polish President Lech Kaczynski.

Ireland reimposed flight ban over its airspace, while Austria, Belgium, France and Switzerland said there would be no flight operations till Sunday.

As chaos prevailed at all European airports, an Iceland geologist warned that activity from the erupting volcano had increased causing a rise in ash plume.

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