EU flights resume but chaos not over

British Airways and El Al renew flights to London as Heathrow reopens.

By AP, JPOST.COM STAFF
April 21, 2010 08:26
3 minute read.
Passengers from Europe sleep as their flights for

Stranded passangers iceland volcano 311. (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

 
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Europe's busiest airport reopened 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 travelers could be brought home.

Airline companies El Al and British Airways renewed air travel to London on Wednesday morning, and the Israeli airline also renewed flights to Germany.

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

The Eurocontrol air traffic agency said it expected just under half of the 27,500 flights over Europe to go ahead 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 (ay-yah-FYAH-lah-yer-kuhl) volcano — dormant for nearly 200 years — that travelers were given a reason for hope.

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But with more than 95,000 flights canceled 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 canceled, 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."

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.

Volcano experts say that should such an eruption occur, air travelers 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.

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.

"Flying was canceled 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.

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 canceled 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."

The U.N.'s International Civil Aviation Organization said 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.

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