Germany extends airspace shutdown to 0000 GMT Tuesday

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Germany's DFS air safety agency extended to 2:00 am (0000 GMT) Tuesday the shutdown of its airspace because of volcanic ash, as a backlash from angry airlines against the measures grew.

"We are still examining whether to extend or temporarily relax these measures ... short-term changes are still possible depending on the weather situation," the agency said in a statement on its website.

Authorities had previously ordered a shutdown until 8:00 pm (1800 GMT) on Monday.

As costs mounted, German airlines increasingly vented their fury, with Lufthansa chief executive Wolfgang Mayrhuber saying the data on which the shutdowns were based "cannot be taken seriously."

"We have local knowledge, we have carried out test flights, and we are seeing that they do not correspond at all to what is being forecast out of England," Mayrhuber said on ZDF public television late on Sunday.

"No one wants to fly into a volcanic ash cloud but what we have seen in the last three days is completely different from something posing a danger."

Lufthansa, Europe's biggest airline in terms of passenger numbers, saw shares plunge by almost five percent in early morning trade before recovering slightly.

Germany's second-largest airline, Air Berlin, which has also questioned the shutdown, saw its stock drop around five percent.

German tourism giant TUI said in a statement it had already lost 23 million euros (31 million dollars) due to the ash cloud and that each day without flights was costing it between five and seven million euros more.

Airport association ADV said its members were losing more than 10 million euros per day in lost revenue.

Officials were also counting the cost to the wider German economy, Europe's largest.

Volker Treier, chief economist at the German Chambers of Commerce (DIHK), estimated the damage to the economy at around one billion euros per day.

Economy Minister Rainer Bruederle acknowledged that the crisis was affecting the economy "to a significant degree" and called an emergency meeting to discuss "how to avoid the worst effects."

But authorities ruled out public aid to the aviation sector, which was already struggling before this crisis, and stressed that safety remained the overriding concern.

DFS spokeswoman Kristina Kelek told German radio that "safety in this type of situation is the highest priority. And we simply do not want to take any risks in German airspace at the moment."

Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer said it would be "cynical" to put airline profits before passenger safety and he dismissed the idea that the government could intervene to prop up the industry.

"I am against any help from the state," Ramsauer told Deutschlandfunk radio, adding that an estimate of the total cost for the sector was not yet possible.

The International Air Transport Association has estimated the crisis could cost the industry as much as 150 million euros (202 million dollars) per day in lost revenue.

Meanwhile, scientists from the German Aerospace Centre were preparing a mission to measure the extent of the ash cloud over Germany.

As travellers were stranded across the country, Germany's train service was doing its best to pick up the strain but overcrowding was rife amid chaotic scenes as passengers fought for space.

A spokesman for Deutsche Bahn said they were pressing every train they had into service and had mobilised emergency staff reserves.

© 2010 AFP

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