Applause, cheers and whoops of joy rang out from New York to Asia to Paris on Tuesday as airplanes gradually took to the skies after five days of being grounded by the drifting volcanic ash that has crippled European air travel.
But only limited flights were allowed to resume and British officials said London airports - a major hub for thousands of daily flights worldwide - are likely to remain closed for another day.
The Euro-control air traffic agency in Brussels said it expects some 55 to 60 percent of flights over Europe to go ahead on Tuesday, a marked improvement over the last few days. By midmorning, 10,000 of Europe’s 27,500 daily flights were scheduled to go.
“The situation today is much improved,” said Brian Flynn, deputy head of operations at the Brussels-based agency. “The outlook is that bit by bit, normal flights will be resumed in coming days.”
Still, an international pilots group warned that ash remains a danger and meteorologists say Iceland’s still-erupting volcano isn’t ready to rest yet, promising more choked airspace and flight delays to come.
A Euro-control map showing the ash cloud on Tuesday listed only the airspace between Iceland and Britain and Ireland as a no-fly zone, along with much of the Baltic Sea and surrounding area. The ash cloud also spread westward from Iceland, toward Greenland and Canada’s eastern coastline.
In many airport hubs that have been cauldrons of anxiety, anger and sleep deprivation, Tuesday marked a day of collective relief.
The boards at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport announcing long-distance flights - which had been streaked with red “cancelled” signs for five days - filled up with white “on time” signs on Tuesday and the first commercial flight out since Thursday left for New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport.
“We were in the hotel having breakfast, and we heard an aircraft take off. Everybody got up and applauded,” said Bob Basso of San Diego, who has been staying in a hotel near Charles de Gaulle since his flight on Friday was cancelled.
“There’s hope,” he said. Basso, 81, and his son have tickets for a flight to Los Angeles later Tuesday.
At New York’s JFK, the first flight from Amsterdam in days arrived Monday night.
“Everyone was screaming in the airplane from happiness,” said passenger Savvas Toumarides, of Cyprus, who missed his sister’s New York wedding after getting stranded in Amsterdam last Thursday. He said the worst part was “waiting and waiting and not knowing.”
An Associated Press photographer saw one KLM jet taking off from Amsterdam into a colourful sunset, which weather officials said was pinker than normal due to the ash.
Limited flights resumed in Scotland, and Switzerland reopened its entire airspace. Germany’s airspace - including Europe’s No. 3 airport at Frankfurt - was to open starting on Tuesday afternoon.
Airports in central Europe and Scandinavia have reopened, and most of southern Europe remained clear, with Spain volunteering to be an emergency hub for overseas travellers trying to get home. Spain piled on extra buses, trains and ferries to handle an expected rush of passengers.
Britain sent navy ships to Spain and France to fetch troops coming home from Afghanistan and passengers who had been stranded by the chaos. Ferries on the continent were so packed that the Viking passenger line between Finland and Sweden opened up its conference rooms so passengers could sleep on the floor.
“No one’s complaining,” said ferry official Thomas von Hellens. “They are just happy to get across.”
Hopeful hitchhikers took to European roads and the technology-savvy headed to Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites to find rides home across the continent.
Some flights resumed early Tuesday from Asia to southern Europe, and flights began flowing to Europe from Cairo, where at least 17,000 people were stranded.
But Asian airports and airlines remained cautious, and most flights to and from Europe remained cancelled.
Patrizia Zotti, from Lecce, Italy, carried her six-month-old son on her back as she waited to finally board a flight out of Tokyo on Tuesday. She was with her husband last Thursday at the airport but they had separate flights - his left just before European airspace choked up, but hers was 20 minutes later and was cancelled.
While they waited five days for a flight, she said, “My biggest worry was the baby.”
She and other passengers, while relieved at getting airborne at last, showed continued concern about the ash. “I’ve read that the exploratory flights were safe, but I’m still a bit worried,” she said.
Australia’s Qantas cancelled its Wednesday and Thursday flights from Asia to Frankfurt and London, as well as return flights to Asia, saying the situation was too uncertain to resume flights into Europe.
It will take a while for full traffic to resume, and not everyone who wanted to could get on a flight on Tuesday.
Phil Livingstone, a university student from St. Helens, England spent three nights sleeping on chairs at Seoul’s Incheon International Airport and living off noodles and the one meal a day the authorities provided.
“Hope is high at the minute just because it’s the only thing we’ve got,” he said.
Some stranded passengers stuck stickers reading “Lost in Transit” to their chests.
Optimism about airport re-openings was tempered by a statement from the British National Air Traffic Service early Tuesday, which said “the volcanic eruption in Iceland has strengthened and a new ash cloud is spreading south and east towards the U.K.”
Jonathan Astill, head of airspace management at Britain’s National Air Traffic Service, told the BBC that London airports would likely remain closed through Wednesday. Flights resumed in Scotland, but only for a handful of domestic flights.
The British naval ship HMS Albion picked up hundreds of troops and civilians to take them back to the UK and two other British naval vessels were en route to rescue marooned British travellers from the Continent.
Europe’s aviation industry - facing losses of more than $1 billion - has sharply criticized government handling of the disruption that grounded thousands of flights to and from the continent.
But the international pilots’ federation said on Tuesday that a return to flight operations in Europe will be possible only if the final decisions are left to the pilots themselves, and are based on safety concerns rather than economics.
Gideon Ewers, spokesman of the London-based pilots group, says historical evidence of the effects of volcanic ash demonstrates that it presents a very real threat to flight safety.
Ash and grit from volcanic eruptions can sabotage a plane in many ways, stalling engines, blocking fuel nozzles, and plugging the tubes that sense airspeed.
Truck driver Mike Kelly, 62, and his wife Wendy, 60, of Somerset, England, simply decided to wait out the ash in Sydney, where their son lives, after being stuck at Singapore’s Changi International Airport for five nights.
“We’re heading back to Sydney today. We heard there might be another volcano explosion so we’d prefer to wait it out on a beach in Sydney,” he said.