This is the worst-ever air traffic dislocation in aviation history. Over 17,000 flights were cancelled in and out of Europe on Saturday, including all flights from most British, French and other major European hubs as the cloud of volcanic ash spread further south and east. This natural calamity is costing the aviation industry alone an estimated $200 million per day.
The Icelandic Meteorological Office said the winds blowing the volcanic ash south east to Europe and up into Scandinavia and Russia will continue in the same direction for at least two days and could go on until Wednesday. But scientists fear there could be more eruptions from the 5,466-foot volcano, Mount Eyjafjallajökull. The cloud of grit from the still-erupting volcano in Iceland began creeping as far south as Italy, forcing authorities to shut down airports in the northern part of that country.
Sigrun Hreinsdottir, a geophysicist at the University of Iceland, was quoted by news agencies as saying: “From what we've seen, it could erupt, pause for a few weeks, and then possibly erupt again. It could go on for months.”
The thousands of passengers remain stranded, unable to go to or worse, return from their holiday destinations. The situation in France has been particularly bad since the air traffic dislocation has been compounded by a rail strike which entered its 10th day today. Moreover, this being a holiday week end, when Easter vacation comes to an end for one of the educational zones but begins for another, there are hundreds of thousands of cars and buses on the road completely choking French highways.
Passengers have been scrambling to get away from France in whichever way possible. Ferry services to Britain are completely over booked as are the few trains still running and scenes of chaos, anger and utter helplessness have been witnessed at several stations airports and bus terminals. “My mother has had a stroke and I cannot get to her in Britain. There is not a single car on hire, the ferries are so packed they won't let you on. The buses are full and here I am, worried sick and utterly helpless,” said a young British traveller found sobbing at the Paris Gare du Nord. She finally found someone to drive her across but only after agreeing to pay a hefty £500.
In France, as in other countries, governments held emergency meetings to estimate the eventual health dangers the fine volcanic ash could pose, especially to asthmatics and children. Geologists reported that activity at the volcano increased on Saturday , spewing a plume of ash 5.3 miles high into the atmosphere.
One of the casualties of this natural disaster is the funeral of Poland's President Lech Kaczynski in Krakow. President Obama announced he would not be able to attend. France's Nicolas Sarkozy, Germany's Angela Merkel and Britain's Prince Charles also sent in their apologies.
With the pileup of marooned passengers growing by the hour, and with U.S. airlines cancelling more than 80% of their flights to Europe on Saturday, analysts say clearing out the backlog and getting the system back to normal could take days once the ash cloud dissipates.