Hundreds of flights grounded as ash cloud reaches Britain

24th May 2011, Comments 0 comments

Airlines halted hundreds of flights on Tuesday after a plume of ash from an erupting volcano in Iceland blew over Britain, even forcing US President Barack Obama to revise his travel plans.

Barely a year after a similar eruption in Iceland forced the biggest closure of European airspace since World War II, Britain's flagship carrier British Airways was the first to suspend flights from London to Scotland.

Dutch airline KLM, Irish carrier Aer Lingus and budget airline Easyjet then followed suit, and Britain's NATS air traffic control also warned of disruption to airports in northern England, including Newcastle, and Northern Ireland.

"Most airlines have cancelled flights today -- 252 flights," said Brian Flynn, head of operations at the Brussels-based Eurocontrol.

In a Twitter update, he warned that the ash cloud "will continue possibly southwards to France and Spain but hard to say now because (weather) forecasts are not precise for the end of the week."

He said that by the end of the day, the cloud "will cover southern parts of Scandinavia, Denmark and northern parts of Germany possibly."

This could threaten planning for events ranging from the G8 summit to the Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United to take place at London's Wembley Stadium on Saturday.

Spanish giants Barcelona said they would make a decision Tuesday regarding their travel plans.

The ash cloud reached Norway on Tuesday morning, a spokesman for airport operator Avinor told AFP, adding that the disruption so far was "very small".

Last year's shutdown was hugely expensive for airlines and low-budget Irish carrier Ryanair said it would challenge advice from the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) not to operate flights to Scotland.

"Following forecasts of significant volcanic ash in Scottish airspace, (we) have decided as a precaution that it will not operate any flights between London and Scotland on Tuesday... that arrive in Scotland before 2:00 pm (1300 GMT) or depart from Scotland before 2:00 pm," a BA statement said.

"At present all other flights are unaffected," it added.

The most high-profile victim of the chaos was Obama, who was forced to leave Ireland 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 well be disrupted if the cloud goes further south.

When an Icelandic volcano erupted last year, the plume of ash arrived in Scotland before spreading quickly across Britain, shutting down the whole country's airspace.

The ash then drifted across most of Europe, sparking the biggest shutdown of airspace in the post-war era.

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.

In a statement on its website, Ryanair said it "strongly objects" to advice from Irish controllers to stay out of Scottish airports until 1200 GMT Tuesday.

"Ryanair believe that there is no safety risk to aircraft on fights operating to and from Scotland and together with other airlines will be complaining to the transport minister and regulatory authorities about these latest and unnecessary cancellation," it said.

British transport minister Philip Hammond said there had been some delays to flights but added Britain was better prepared after last year's travel chaos when Iceland's Eyjafjoell volcano caused major disruption.

"Clearly, this is a natural phenomenon which we cannot control, but the UK is now much better prepared to deal with an ash eruption than last year," he said.

Britain's Civil Aviation Authority said it had brought in new measures including a move to identify areas of high, medium and low density ash using data from the Met Office.

Instead of a blanket ban on flights, airlines wishing to operate in high or medium density ash will now have to have a safety request approved by the CAA.

© 2011 AFP

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