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Europe allows some flights but ash prompts new delays

Europe eased its aerial lockdown Tuesday with around a half of its scheduled flights taking to the skies, but more ash from Iceland’s billowing volcano prolonged the agony of most stranded passengers.

Although the eruption of ash which has blackened the skies around the Eyjafjoell volcano lost some of its fury, plumes which headed towards Britain meant the runways at the continent’s busiest airport remained closed.

As some countries including France, Germany and Belgium allowed a gradual resumption of flights, passengers lucky enough to get a ticket home spoke of their utter joy.

“I’ve never been so happy in my life going back home,” said Shahriar Ravari from San Diego, waiting at a Paris airport for a flight to Los Angeles with the end of his travel nightmare in sight.

“I love France but to be going home is something else.”

Millions of people have been stranded across the globe since Europe began shutting down airspace six days ago and the world association of airlines, IATA, says the crisis is costing the industry 200 million dollars a day.

Eurocontrol, the body coordinating air traffic control across the region, said around 14,000 flights scheduled in Europe for Tuesday should take place, representing around half of the normal volume.

“On a normal Tuesday, we would expect between 27,000 and 28,000. By the end of today, we expect that more than 95,000 flights in total will have been cancelled since Thursday 15 April,” it said.

Airlines such as British Airways and Germany’s Lufthansa have been at the forefront of pressure for an immediate reopening of the airspace and had hoped that Tuesday would mark the beginning of the end of the crisis.

While several smaller airports in Britain did resume operations, London Heathrow — Europe’s biggest — remained closed.

British Airways initially cancelled all its short-haul flights after warnings from the National Air Traffic Services the situation was “worsening in some areas” before then shelving all its long-haul flights as well.

German authorities extended their closure to 1800 GMT although Lufthansa was given clearance to fly visually rather than relying on instruments, and staying in contact with traffic controllers.

Lufthansa said it planned to carry more than 15,000 passengers on some 200 flights, around 11 percent of its normal daily schedule.

Airspace over northern Italy slowly reopened with the flights leaving Rome and Milan. Flights also began landing at Belgian airports. Norway reopened all of its airspace until at least 1800 GMT Tuesday.

In France Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau said 30 percent of scheduled national and international flights would fly from Paris airports.

Denmark, Ireland and Sweden were among the countries that kept their airspace closed.

Australia’s Qantas Airways extended its ban on flights to and from Europe for another 24 hours but Air China said had it resumed routes between Beijing and destinations including Moscow, Stockholm and Rome.

In Iceland itself, police said the plume of ash from the Eyjafjoell volcano was diminishing but warned that there was “still considerable volcanic activity at the site and three seemingly separate craters are still erupting”.

Eye-stinging, sulphuric dust enveloped farmland under the volcano while visibility fell to 50 metres (55 yards) and cars drove with headlights on during daylight.

“I would worry if we saw expansion of the volcano, but we are seeing the volcano shrink,” University of Iceland geophysicist Sigrun Hreinsdottir told AFP.

The World Meteorological Organisation said the ash was expected to head towards the Arctic when the weather changes later in the week.

A British navy ship, the HMS Albion, arrived in the northern Spanish port of Santander to pick up troops returning from Afghanistan as well as around 200 stranded holidaymakers.

Others made it home after gruelling journeys overland.

“We were supposed to fly back on Sunday,” said exhausted German housewife Adelheid Jung, one of about 700 stranded tourists brought back from Spain in special buses to Frankfurt overnight.

The shutdown meant top footballers Barcelona had to travel by bus to Milan for a Champions League semi-final while German carmaker BMW had to partially halt production because spare parts had not arrived.

It also threatened the world chess final in Sofia this week, with Indian champion Viswanathan Anand caught in Frankfurt, while planeloads of exports from garments to mobile phones piled up in Asian airports.