New ash cloud grounds flights in Britain, Ireland

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Britain and Ireland grounded flights again Wednesday after a fresh cloud of ash swept in from the Icelandic volcano which sparked unprecedented air travel chaos in Europe last month.

British regulators imposed a flight ban from Scottish and Northern Irish airports from 7:00 am (0600 GMT) for 12 hours for most affected airports, warning that high ash levels could damage plane engines.

Irish authorities, who stopped flights for several hours on Tuesday, also closed airports progressively from 0600 GMT, while saying transatlantic and other planes could still fly over at higher altitudes.

"The volcano in Iceland has expelled denser, coarser ash higher into the atmosphere," said the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA), adding that Dublin airport would remain closed until at least midnight (2300 GMT).

Britain's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) added: "Forecasts show that levels of ash in the atmosphere over Scotland and Northern Ireland will exceed the concentrations that engine manufacturers have agreed are safe for operations."

While the flight ban would remain in place for the rest of Wednesday, the CAA said it hoped the restrictions could be lifted on Thursday.

"We are pretty confident that the ash plumes will start drifting west across the Atlantic and that all UK airspace will be clear of ash tomorrow," said a CAA spokesman.

"It's possible that if the strength of the wind picks up then some of the airports not operating at the moment might be able to handle flights later today. But it's certainly looking good for tomorrow."

The new shutdowns followed a closure of Irish, Northern Irish and some Scottish airspace for several hours Tuesday, causing the cancellation of hundreds of flights and travel misery for thousands of passengers.

Airspace across Europe was closed for up to a week last month after the eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjoell volcano, but was re-opened after emergency talks between European governments, airlines and regulators.

The CAA said some Scottish airports, including Glasgow, would likely be closed for 12 hours until 7:00 pm (1800 GMT).

But regulators did not indicate that the ash was an imminent threat to airports further south, including London Heathrow, Europe's busiest air hub.

Clouds of ash from the Iceland volcano last month caused the biggest aerial shutdown in Europe since World War II.

Tuesday's airspace closures came on the same day European Union transport ministers met in Brussels to discuss last month's shutdown as the new ash cloud hovered over Ireland.

A notable absence was Irish Transport Minister Noel Dempsey -- unable to fly to the meeting because of the new ash cloud chaos.

Irish airline Aer Lingus said the flight ban last month had cost it about 20 million euros (26 million dollars), while warning that "the final cost will depend on the actual level of customer claims."

The Association of British Insurers estimated Tuesday that the travel chaos caused by the ash had cost insurers around 62 million pounds (94 million dollars, 72 million euros).

Eurocontrol, the continent's air traffic control co-ordinator, said more than 100,000 flights to, from and within Europe had been cancelled between April 15 and 21, preventing an estimated 10 million passengers from travelling.

© 2010 AFP

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