Volcanic ash may affect UK flights beginning Sunday, German flights starting on Monday

By Jennifer Quinn, AP
Saturday, May 15, 2010

UK, Germany eye possible ash travel disruptions

LONDON — Volcanic ash from Iceland could disrupt air travel in both Britain and Germany in the next few days, officials said Saturday.

The British Department of Transport said there was a risk that parts of British airspace could be closed beginning Sunday and those problems could continue through Tuesday. The predictions are based on the continuing eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokul volcano and current wind and weather conditions.

It said different parts of British airspace — including England’s southeast, home to Europe’s busiest airport at Heathrow as well as Gatwick, Stansted and other top airports — could close at different times through the next few days.

In Germany, air traffic control spokesman Axel Raab told The Associated Press that German air travel could face possible disruptions starting Monday but cautioned that indicators were still “very, very vague.”

Germany will send up a test flight Sunday to measure the ash concentration, German Aerospace Center spokesman Andreas Schuetz said — a measure welcomed by Lufthansa, Germany’s largest airline, which last month criticized air traffic authorities for their lack of ash testing.

Any decision on German air space closures will be made after examining Sunday’s weather forecasts at an emergency meeting with meteorologists, Raab said.

In Iceland, civil protection official Agust Gunnar Gylfason said the intensity of the Eyjafjallajokul eruption had not changed but wind conditions had.

“The winds in the vicinity of the volcano are not quite as forceful as they have been, so the ash plume is higher closer to the volcano,” he said. “The weather patterns are the predominant factor in deciding where the ash goes.”

The Met Office, Britain’s weather forecaster, said Saturday that the wind is expected to change direction Tuesday, which would lower the risk of travel disruptions.

Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said five-day forecasts are now being published to give airlines and travelers “the best possible information. However, he said the situation “remains fluid and these forecasts are always liable to change.”

British airport operator BAA said on its website Saturday that all of its facilities are open, but the ash cloud “continues to cause occasional problems.” It said it would have a clearer idea of how the ash could affect southern England over the next 24 hours.

Airlines, including Lufthansa and British Airways, have criticized past air space closures as an overreaction by regulators.

The controversy over how to handle the flight disruptions led to the resignation of a top Lufthansa executive, news weekly Der Spiegel reported Saturday.

Stefanie Stotz, a spokeswoman for Lufthansa, confirmed that chief security pilot Juergen Steinberg is leaving “by mutual agreement” on Aug. 1. He had criticized Lufthansa’s leadership for operating flights under visual flight rules while German airspace was still officially closed because of the ash cloud.

Steinberg represents some 4,000 pilots and advises Lufthansa’s board on security issues.

In Rome, Italy’s civil aviation agency fined Ryanair some €3 million ($3.7 million) for failing to help 178 passengers stranded last month when flights were canceled due to the volcanic ash cloud. The ENAC agency said those Ryanair passengers didn’t receive mandatory assistance such as food, drink and lodgings during the April 15-22 flight shutdown across much of Europe.

Ryanair said the company hadn’t been informed of the fine.

Associated Press writers Juergen Baetz in Berlin and Frances D’Emilio in Rome contributed to this report from Berlin.

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