UK, Ireland hopeful volcanic ash clouds dissipating so normal air traffic can resume

By Shawn Pogatchnik, AP
Thursday, May 6, 2010

UK, Irish hopeful volcanic ash clouds dissipating

DUBLIN — British and Irish authorities are hopeful of re-establishing normal air traffic Thursday following two days of shutdowns caused by a new wave of dense volcanic ash from Iceland.

The ash clouds snarled air traffic Wednesday in Ireland and Scotland, stranding tens of thousands of people, but narrowly missing England and key London air hubs.

Dublin Airport canceled all flights until 4 a.m. (0300 GMT) Thursday (11 p.m. EDT Wednesday), marooning more than 30,000 passengers in the process.

More than a dozen other airports throughout the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland shut down, too, as unseasonable winds pushed the engine-wrecking ash southwest back toward the Atlantic. Britain’s National Air Traffic Service said the densest ash clouds skirted the western coast of England and North Wales but posed no threat to airports there.

The renewed volcanic-ash threat in the skies of Britain and Ireland this week, following a two-week lull, has tested the more precise safety rules adopted by European aviation authorities following the unprecedented April 14-20 closure of most northern European airspace.

This time authorities are grounding flights only when the ash reaches sufficient density levels and gets within 60 miles (100 kilometers) of an airport’s path for landings and takeoffs — a stark contrast to last month’s closures of air services throughout several countries.

Britain’s National Air Traffic Service cleared Edinburgh Airport in eastern Scotland to reopen Wednesday evening, but Glasgow Airport further west was required to shut its runways until 1 a.m. (0000GMT) Thursday at the earliest.

The Irish Aviation Authority said Dublin should be the country’s first airport to reopen. The other major international hub, Shannon Airport, will shut from 5:30 p.m. (1630GMT) Wednesday until 1 p.m. (1200GMT) Thursday. Two smaller airports in southwest Ireland, Cork and Kerry, were to shut at midnight and reopen at 11 a.m. (1000GMT) and 3 p.m. (1400GMT), respectively.

The rapidly changing situation obliged would-be fliers to hop on trains, buses and taxis to reach nearby airports. Virgin Trains also launched extra services Wednesday between Scotland and London.

Market-leading airline Ryanair sought to discourage the passengers’ dashing from airport to airport by announcing blanket closures Wednesday for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Dublin.

Ryanair also warned customers planning to fly out of several airports in the west and north of England — Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle — to check the company’s Web site and remain alert for possible closure announcements.

But Scotland’s leader, First Minister Alex Salmond, slammed the Civil Aviation Authority for issuing a vague, inaccurate statement overnight that resulted in unnecessary flight cancelations in eastern Scotland, including Edinburgh and Aberdeen.

“That can’t be allowed to happen again. … Press statements must be clear and not cause confusion,” Salmond said.

The CAA confirmed its announcement — which flatly said Scotland’s airports would close first thing Wednesday — should not have included east-coast airports, which didn’t have to shut as quickly as Glasgow to the west.

Donie Mooney, operations director at the Irish Aviation Authority, said the volcano’s emissions changed over the past few days and caught forecasters off guard, forcing Ireland to abandon its hopes of staying open Wednesday.

“The ash plume has been going higher and the ash is of a coarser nature. That threw our projected opening times into some disarray,” he said.

Still, the ash clouds are remaining below 20,000 feet (6 kilometers), far lower than the cruising altitude of passenger jets. Therefore, they pose a danger only to ascending or descending aircraft.

In Iceland, civil protection official Agust Gunnar Gylfason said the Eyjafjallajokul volcano was spewing out ash continuously, but only at a rate equivalent to 5 percent of its original volumes in the early days of the eruption.

“It’s relatively little,” he said.

Nonetheless the volcano, about 900 miles (1,500 miles) northwest of Ireland, has shown no signs of stopping since it began belching ash April 13. The glacier-capped volcano last erupted sporadically from 1821 to 1823.

Travel experts warned that Ireland was particularly vulnerable to summertime disruption if Eyjafjallajokul doesn’t calm down.

“If Iceland has the wrong kind of geology, Ireland has the wrong kind of geography. It’s too close to Iceland and is dependent on air travel,” said tourism industry analyst Simon Calder.

Last month, European authorities canceled 100,000 flights affecting 10 million passengers as they sought to craft a plan for managing the ash menace. The groundings cost the aviation industry billions in lost business. EU rules also require the airlines to cover the hotel and food expenses of stranded passengers who stay put to wait out the delays.

Associated Press Writer Raphael G. Satter in London contributed to this report.

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