Hundreds of flights hit as ash reaches Britain
Airlines grounded hundreds of flights Tuesday after a plume of ash from a volcano in Iceland blanketed Britain and touched Scandinavia in a fresh travel nightmare for thousands of passengers.
Barely a year after a similar eruption in Iceland forced the biggest closure of European airspace since World War II, British Airways was the first to suspend flights from London to Scotland.
Dutch airline KLM, Ireland's Aer Lingus and budget airline easyJet followed suit, while air traffic authorities warned disruption from the Grimsvoetn volcano could spread to airports in northern England and Northern Ireland.
"Most airlines have cancelled flights today -- 252 flights," said Brian Flynn, head of operations at the Brussels-based Eurocontrol.
Low-cost airline Ryanair however flew a plane through Scottish airspace and said they detected no ash on the aircraft, hitting out at British and Irish authorities for over-reacting.
The ash cloud also caused minor air traffic disruption in Norway and closed a small part of Denmark's airspace, and Eurocontrol warned that the ash cloud could continue southwards to France and Spain.
Authorities say the ash can damage planes and stop engines.
The growing chaos threatens planning for events ranging from the G8 summit to the Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United which takes place at London's Wembley Stadium on Saturday.
Spanish giants Barcelona said the squad would fly to London on Tuesday, two days earlier than planned, due to the "uncertainty" caused by the volcano.
Europe's transport commissioner Siim Kallas played down fears that the situation could get as bad as 2010, when thousands of travellers from around the world were left stranded.
"We do not at this stage anticipate widespread airspace closure and prolonged disruption like we saw last year," Kallas told a news conference.
Iceland's Meteorological Office said activity at the volcano had slowed Tuesday and the ash plume had overnight dropped from its peak of 20 kilometres (12 miles) to between three and five kilometres in altitude.
"It's much less strong than on the first day," on Saturday, Olof Baldursdottir, a spokeswoman for the agency, told AFP.
Last year's shutdown was hugely expensive for airlines and Ryanair is again leading the way in challenging advice from aviation authorities.
It said its one-hour "verification" flight in Scotland's airspace showed no visible volcanic ash cloud, while a post-flight inspection also revealed no evidence of volcanic ash on the airframe, wings or engines.
"The absence of any volcanic ash in the atmosphere supports Ryanair's stated view that there is no safety threat to aircraft in this mythical 'red zone' which is another misguided invention by the UK Met Office and the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority)," it said in a statement.
The most high-profile victim of the chaos was US President Barack Obama, who was forced to leave Ireland for London a day ahead of schedule on Monday night to avoid being stranded there.
Obama is among the leaders of the world's major industrialised nations due to attend a summit in northwest France from Thursday which could also be disrupted if the cloud goes further south.
Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis was meanwhile forced to cancel a visit to Britain scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday.
When Iceland's Eyjafjoell volcano erupted last year, the ash plume arrived first in Britain before spreading across the rest of Europe.
Many airlines were deeply unhappy at the time at being forced to halt their flights and the prospect of a fresh confrontation between carriers and aviation authorities loomed on Tuesday.
British transport minister Philip Hammond said the ash plume was a natural phenomenon "but the UK is now much better prepared to deal with an ash eruption than last year."
Britain's CAA has brought in new measures including a move to identify areas of high, medium and low density ash. Instead of a blanket ban airlines wishing to operate in high or medium density ash will now have to have a safety request approved by the CAA.
© 2011 AFP