Winds blow volcanic ash back over Britain; passengers cheer as some flights resume in Europe

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Some EU flights resume but travel chaos not over

LONDON — European airports lurched back to life Tuesday as the gridlock spawned by Iceland’s volcanic ash plume eased. But British hubs remain closed and the government says it will be weeks before tens of thousands of stranded travelers can be brought home.

London’s airports — among the busiest in Europe and a major worldwide hub — will remain closed until at least Wednesday, though British Airways sought permission from authorities to land about a dozen flights from the United States, Asia and Africa at Heathrow Airport. The long-haul flights are already en route — and are awaiting confirmation of whether they can land in London, or must head to airports elsewhere in Britain or France.

Forecasters said more delays were possible if the dense ash cloud remained over much of the country with no change in conditions expected before Friday. Airspace in Germany also remained largely closed until 0000GMT (8 p.m. EDT) but about 800 flights were allowed at low altitude.

Some passengers wept with relief as the flights resumed, but Britons stranded in Europe found themselves facing long journeys to simply reach the English Channel in the hope of finding a ferry. Britain’s navy mobilized an assault ship to bring hundreds of stranded tourists home — but authorities warned it could be weeks before everyone could return to Britain.

It was the first day since the April 14 eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull (ay-yah-FYAH-lah-yer-kuhl) volcano — dormant for nearly 200 years — that travelers were given a glimmer of hope. Cheers and applause erupted as flights took off from Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport, Amsterdam and elsewhere.

“Everyone was screaming in the airplane from happiness,” said Savvas Toumarides of Cyprus, who finally arrived in New York after getting stuck in Amsterdam for five days and missing his sister’s wedding. He said the worst part was “waiting and waiting and not knowing.”

“We were in the hotel having breakfast, and we heard an aircraft take off. Everybody got up and applauded,” said Bob Basso of San Diego, who has been staying near Charles de Gaulle since his flight Friday was canceled. “There’s hope.”

Basso, 81, and his son had tickets for a flight to Los Angeles later Tuesday.

The Eurocontrol air traffic agency in Brussels said it expected just under half of the 27,500 flights over Europe to go ahead Tuesday, a marked improvement over the last few days. The agency predicted close to normal takeoffs by Friday.

“The situation today is much improved,” said Brian Flynn, deputy head of operations at the Brussels-based agency.

Conditions changed fast. Airspace in Germany remained officially closed Tuesday, but airlines were permitted to operate a limited number of flights under so-called visual flight rules.

Rita and Peter Meyer said they had to share a hotel room with two strangers in Singapore while waiting to find a way home. News that they could fly home to Frankfurt airport surprised them as they slept.

“Just after midnight — after an hour’s sleep — the phone rang (and they said) everyone downstairs, get in taxis to the airport,” Rita Meyer said.

But with more than 95,000 flights canceled in the last week alone, airlines faced the enormous task of working through the backlog to get passengers where they want to go — a challenge that could take days or even weeks.

Passengers with current tickets were being given priority — stranded passengers were being told to either pay for a new ticket, take the first available flight or to use their old ticket and wait for days, or weeks, for the first available seat.

“Once your flight’s canceled, you go to the back of the queue,” said Laurie Price, director of aviation strategy at consultant Mott Macdonald. “It seems intrinsically unfair.”

Price himself is stranded in Halifax, Canada.

The volcano that prompted the turmoil continued to rumble. Tremors, which geologists believe to be caused by magma rising through the crust, can be heard and felt as far as 25 kilometers (15 miles) from the crater. “It’s like a shaking in the belly. People in the area are disturbed by this,” said Kristin Vogfjord, geologist at the Icelandic Met Office.

Scientists were worried that the eruption could trigger an even larger eruption at the nearby Katla volcano, which sits on the massive Myrdalsjokull icecap and has erupted every 80 or so years. Its last major eruption was in 1918.

“The activity of one volcano sometimes triggers the next one, and Katla has been active together with Eyjafjallajokull in the past,” said Pall Einarsson, professor of geophysics at the Institute of Earth Sciences at the University of Iceland.

Volcano experts say that should an eruption occur, air travelers might expect similar disruptions, depending on prevailing winds. Of Iceland’s eight volcanic eruptions in the last 40 years, only the recent one at Eyjafjallajokull was followed by winds blowing southeast toward northern Europe.

While seismic activity at the volcano had increased, the ash plume appeared to be shrinking. But it isn’t moving very fast.

Sarah Holland of Britain’s Meteorological office said the plume was being held over Britain by a high pressure system that showed no signs of changing.

“The weather patterns are very static at the moment. It’s unusual to have that for such a long period of time,” she said. “Unfortunately, it looks like it’s going to stay that way for the next couple of days, bringing the ash over the U.K.”

So far, there’s been zero tolerance for flying in it in Britain.

A Eurocontrol volcanic ash map on Tuesday listed the airspace between Iceland and Britain and Ireland as a no-fly zone, along with much of the Baltic Sea and surrounding area. The ash cloud also spread westward from Iceland, toward Greenland and Canada’s eastern coastline.

Still, planes were being allowed to fly above 20,000 feet (7,000 kilometers) in the United Kingdom.

Flights resumed in Scotland, but only for a handful of domestic flights. Switzerland also reopened its airspace. Some flights took off from Asia to southern Europe and planes ferried people to Europe from Cairo, where at least 17,000 people were stranded.

Airports in central Europe and Scandinavia have reopened, and most of southern Europe remained clear, with Spain volunteering to be an emergency hub for overseas travelers trying to get home. Spain piled on extra buses, trains and ferries to handle an expected rush of passengers.

Even the U.S. Air Force has been grounded. Capt. Alysia Harvey, the spokeswoman for the U.S. Air Force’s 48th Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath, said all sorties have been canceled there since last Thursday and the fighters have been stored in protective shelters. Lakenheath is the largest U.S. air base in England, and the only one in Europe that has an F-15 fighter wing.

“Flying was canceled because it’s difficult to predict exactly where the cloud is going to be or the effect it will have on aircraft engines,” she said. “These are precautionary measures because we put safety first and don’t want to risk engine failure.”

Britain’s military said Royal Navy Warship HMS Albion had picked up 450 military personnel and about 280 civilians Tuesday from Santander, in northern Spain, but confirmed the HMS Ark Royal aircraft carrier and the HMS Ocean assault ship will not be deployed immediately. Angry and frustrated, tens of thousands of Britons overseas sought relief and a ride.

Britain’s Foreign Office acknowledged the enormity of the problem, informing Britons abroad that it may take a “matter of weeks before everyone can be repatriated.” Prime Minister Gordon Brown promised 50 buses by Wednesday. But desperate travelers say they can’t arrive too soon.

Tom and Natalie Smith and their children Ben and Joanne, from Bristol, found themselves stranded after spending a week on the Costa Brava.

“We should have returned to work this morning,” Tom Smith said. “Natalie is a diabetic and so that is also a concern as she may run out of medication depending on how long it takes to get back.”

The government advised Britons stranded overseas “to remain where they are and to remain in close contact with their airline.” Those in Europe were told to make their way to the French port of Calais, other Channel ports or a northern European port.

Thousands converged on the coast from across Europe by car, train and bus, evoking memories for some of the evacuation of the British army from Nazi-occuped France through the port of Dunkirk in 1940.

“You could say it is a bit of Dunkirk spirit,” said Stanley Johnson, father of London mayor Boris Johnson, who was among soldiers and civilians picked up in Spain by Royal Navy warship HMS Albion.

The aviation industry — facing losses of more than $1 billion — has sharply criticized European governments’ handling of the disruption that grounded thousands of flights on the continent.

Some carriers are using bigger planes and more flights, while others were hiring buses to help customers to their destinations. Most said they would let passengers with tickets for a planned departing flight this week go first, but offered to rebook customers on another plane for no additional cost.

That process could take days or even weeks, and tens of thousands of those stranded abroad remain uncertain about when and how they can get home as airspace restrictions over many European countries changed from one hour to the next.

British Airways, which canceled about 500 flights a day in the past five days, said it was trying to clear its backlog on a case-by-case basis. It said travelers could either rebook online or claim a full refund, and it also urged travelers booked to fly this week to consider canceling their trips so that it could maximize space to fly people home.

Spain’s main airline Iberia said it was digesting the backlog by using bigger planes and adding extra flights.

“We’ve never had a backlog like this before,” Price said. “After 9-11 airspace was shut for three days, and then the U.S. airlines were bailed out by the government.”

Associated Press writers Jill Lawless, David Stringer, Eric Talmadge and Sylvia Hui in London; Slobodan Lekic in Brussels, Carlo Piovano in Reykajavik, Iceland, Alex Kennedy in Singapore, Megan Scott in New York, Jay Alabaster and Malcolm Foster in Tokyo, Tanalee Smith in Adelaide, Australia, Bradley Klapper in Geneva and other AP reporters around the world contributed to this report.

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