New Europe flights give hope to stranded passengers

19th April 2010, Comments 0 comments

European governments opened up the continent's airspace to new flights from Tuesday giving hope to hundreds of thousands of passengers around the world trapped by a cloud of volcanic ash crippling airlines.

The huge cloud of volcanic ash that has blanketed Europe forced the cancellation of another 20,000 flights on Monday and Britain and other governments sent navy ships and set up other measures to rescue stranded passengers.

But under relentless pressure from airlines facing a new billion dollar-plus bill, EU transport ministers agreed to ease restrictions from Tuesday.

British authorities said they would lift the flight ban from 7:00 am (0600 GMT) on Tuesday, starting in Scotland moving south as conditions improved. British Airways said it hoped to resume flights into and out of London from Tuesday evening.

France said it would begin to progressively reopen airports from Monday with restricted flights from Paris to start from early Tuesday.

Flights over Germany remained banned until the early hours of Tuesday, but some flights operated with special permission. A spokeswoman for German carrier Lufthansa said it had permission to land 50 flights from Asia, Africa and North and South America, carrying 15,000 passengers in total.

Three KLM flights carrying passengers would leave Amsterdam-Schiphol airport on Monday for Shanghai, Dubai and New York, the Dutch transport minister announced.

EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas said: "From tomorrow morning on, we should progressively see more planes start to fly."

But he insisted "there cannot be any compromise on safety. All the decisions must be based on scientific evidence and expert analysis."

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

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

In Europe 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.

Britain ordered its flagship 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," Prime Minister Gordon Brown said.

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.

EU leaders have come under fire for their dealing with 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.

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 the blanket airspace closures were "unnecessary" and should be lifted.

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 on Monday, mainly in southern Europe. About 80,000 flights have been cancelled since last Wednesday.

But as airlines argued their case, 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 volcanoes 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 Germany'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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