Europe mobilises for stranded air passengers

19th April 2010, Comments 0 comments

Britain sent in the navy as governments mobilised Monday to help hundreds of thousands of stranded passengers and airlines demanded a lifting of the air embargo triggered by Iceland's volcano.

The huge cloud of volcanic ash kept most of Europe's skies under lockdown, forcing the cancellation of another 20,000 flights, although experts said the eruption seemed to be losing power.

Nearly seven million passengers have been affected by blanket shutdowns which governments say are essential but which airlines blame for unnecessary chaos and massive financial losses.

Europe's three main airports in London, Paris and Frankfurt, remained giant ghost towns, closed until Tuesday. Britain said it would start re-opening its airspace Tuesday but experts predicted severe disruptions to run for days.

There were scenes of mayhem at airports across the Asia-Pacific region as thousands of backpackers, business travellers and students anxiously awaited the chance to return to Europe.

In Europe itself, marooned passengers juggled hellish combinations of rail, boat and road links, zig-zagging across borders in desperate attempts to make it home -- whether to the other end of Europe or to the United States.

Under pressure to assist its nationals, Britain ordered its navy aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and HMS Ocean and HMS Albion to pick up thousands of Britons from France -- where they have come from all over Europe -- and Spain.

"This is the biggest challenge to our aviation transport network for many years," Brown said.

Germany also gave its carrier Lufthansa the exceptional go-ahead to repatriate 15,000 passengers on board 50 long-haul flights from around the world.

And Spain, one of the rare countries operating normally, struck an agreement with Britain, France and Germany to fly hundreds of thousands of their nationals back to Europe via Spanish airports.

European transport ministers were to hold a video conference to work out how to get around the chaos sparked by Iceland's Eyjafjoell volcano, as forecasters predicted the ash cloud could soon reach Canada.

"This is a European embarrassment and it's a European mess," said Giovanni Bisignani, director general of the International Air Transport Association.

Authorities in Sweden, Romania, Croatia, Hungary and the Czech Republic announced the resumption of flights. Other countries such as Switzerland and Denmark allowed jets to fly through their airspace but only above the cloud.

Eurocontrol, a continent-wide aviation authority, said only 8,000-9,000 flights of the normal 28,000 would get into the air, mainly in southern Europe.

Air France, British Airways, KLM and Lufthansa reported no problems after flights to test fears the ash cloud would destroy jet engines.

British Airways said Monday a test flight had proved that the blanket airspace closures ordered across Europe were "unnecessary" and should be lifted, a call echoed by KLM and Lufthansa.

"Risk assessment should be able to help us to reopen certain corridors, if not the entire airspace," IATA's Bisignani told reporters in Paris.

But even as airlines argued the dangers had been exaggerated, a senior US military official said the ash had affected one of NATO's F-16 fighter planes, which detected a glass build-up inside its engine.

Ash from volcanos can be turned into a glass form at high temperatures when it passes through a jet engine.

"This is a very, very serious matter that in the not too distant future will start having real impact on military capabilities," said the official.

"I think the airspace is closed for a reason."

Companies are losing 200 million euros (270 million dollars) per day according to the IATA, while Volker Treier, chief economist at the German Chambers of Commerce, estimated the damage to the country's economy at around one billion euros per day.

The European Commission said it was prepared to authorise exceptional financial aid to airlines in line with regulations passed after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Winds have carried most of the ash spewing from Eyjafjoell across a wide swathe of Europe since last Wednesday.

But the eruption "diminished markedly" and the column of ash is less than half its original height of 6,000 metres (19,500 feet) on Monday, seismologist Bryndis Brandsdottir of the University of Iceland told AFP.


© 2010 AFP

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