Volcanic ash turns northern Europe into no-fly zone

A huge ash cloud from an Icelandic volcano caused air travel chaos across Europe and beyond on Friday, leaving hundreds of thousands of passengers stranded.

Most of Britain’s airspace will remain closed to all but emergency flights until at least 6pm GMT on Friday due to the dangers posed by clouds of volcanic ash from Iceland, aviation officials said.

A leading vulcanologist said the ash could cause problems to air traffic for up to six months if the eruption continued, but even if short-lived the financial impact on airlines could be significant.

The International Air Transport Association said only days ago that airlines were just coming out of recession.

The volcano began erupting on Wednesday for the second time in a month from below the Eyjafjallajokull glacier, hurling a plume of ash 6 to 11km into the atmosphere.

Volcanic ash contains tiny particles of glass and pulverised rock that can damage engines and airframes.

In 1982 a British Airways jumbo jet lost power in all its engines when it flew into an ash cloud over Indonesia, gliding towards the ground before it was able to restart its engines.

The incident prompted the aviation industry to rethink the way it prepared for ash clouds, resulting in international contingency plans activated on Thursday.

Britain’s air traffic control body said it was reviewing the situation and would give an update at 7.30am GMT on Friday.

Tens of thousands affected
A spokesperson at Heathrow, Europe’s busiest airport, said 840 out of 1 250 flights on Thursday were affected, disrupting about 180 000 passengers. More than 120 000 other passengers were affected at Gatwick, Stansted and Glasgow airports.

Officials at Germany’s Frankfurt airport, Europe’s second busiest, said they would make a decision on flights later on Friday.

David Castelveter, a spokesperson for the Air Transport Association of America, said its member carriers had halted over 100 flights between the United States and Britain on Thursday.

Airlines across Asia also cancelled or delayed flights to most European destinations, leaving thousands of passengers stranded.

Australia’s Qantas said it expected flights to Europe would not be open for at least another 24 hours. “Our personal view is it may take until Sunday,” said spokesperson David Epstein.

Japan Airlines, Korean Air, Singapore Airlines and Hongkong’s Cathay Pacific all cancelled flights to europe.

Brian Flynn, deputy head of operations at Eurocontrol, an inter-governmental air safety organisation, said the disruption was unprecedented:

French authorities said airports across northern France, including Paris, would be closed by the end of Thursday.

Brussels, Amsterdam and Geneva airports said they had cancelled a large number of flights and Eurocontrol spokesperson Brian Flynn said the problem could persist.

Finland closed all airports from midnight on Thursday.

The Association of British Insurers said volcanic eruptions were not always covered by travel insurance for cancellation and delay, but some airlines issued statements confirming they would refund fares or change flights.

Scientists said the ash did not pose any health threat because it is at such a high altitude.

Bill McGuire, professor at the Aon Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre, said if the volcano continued erupting for more than 12 months, as it did the last time, periodic disruptions to air traffic could continue.

“The problem is volcanoes are very unpredictable and in this case we have only one eruption to go on,” he said.

“A lot depends on the wind. I would expect this shutdown to last a couple of days. But if the eruption continues—and continues to produce ash—we could see repeated disruption over six months or so.” - Reuters



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