Europe extends flight bans

April 18, 2010 12:00 am

, LONDON, Apr 18 – A cloud of volcanic ash smothering Europe tightened its powerful control of the skies on Sunday, enforcing a fourth day of travel misery for millions of travellers and casting a shadow over the Polish president\’s funeral.

About 30 countries have now closed or restricted their airspace, with the cloud of fine mineral dust particles from Iceland now extending from the Arctic Circle in the north to the French Mediterranean coast in the south and from Spain into Russia.

Some countries, such as the Netherlands, started carrying out test flights to see if jets could safely fly however.

Britain extended its ban on flights in its airspace until late Sunday and British Airways cancelled all flights in and out of London for the whole day.

Germany and most Scandinavian and central European countries also kept the flight ban in place, extending the biggest airspace shutdown since World War II.

With the blanket spreading, Italy and Spain said they would not allow flights into the northern parts of their countries. The cloud is now heading toward Greece and into Russia, weather experts said.

With hundreds of thousands of travellers now stranded around the globe, prevailing winds blowing the massive cloud from Iceland toward Europe could go on until the middle of the week, Iceland\’s Meteorological Office has warned.

"The ash will continue to be directed towards Britain and Scandinavia," Teitur Arason, a meteorologist at the Icelandic Meteorological Office, told AFP.

Poland shut its airspace until further notice.

The closure has stopped world leaders, including US President Barack Obama, from flying to the southern city of Krakow for Sunday\’s funeral of president Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria.

The Kaczynskis were among 96 people, most of them Polish dignitaries, killed in a plane crash in Russia on April 10 on their way to a World War II memorial service.

Some governments, such as France, have set up emergency cells to work out how to get stranded nationals home.

Some 17,000 flights in European airspace on Saturday were cancelled due to the cloud, said Eurocontrol, which coordinates air traffic control in 38 nations.

Only about 5,000 out of 22,000 flights in Europe were able to operate, the agency said.

And out of 337 scheduled flights by US carriers to and from Europe, 282 were cancelled Saturday, the Air Transport Association of America said.

Justifying the widespread airport closures aviation officials have explained that airplane engines could become clogged up and stop working if they tried to fly through the ash.

But Dutch airline KLM staged a test flight with a jet on Saturday, which Dutch authorities said had ended "safely".

The impact of the shutdown is likely to exceed the airspace shutdown after the September 11, 2001 attacks, the International Civil Aviation Organisation said.

Stranded holidaymakers and business travellers sought any means possible to get home — or contented themselves with just staying put.

"EasyJet has assured us that we will be reimbursed for accommodation until Wednesday" when the next flight is due out, said British holidaymaker Karen Apple at Faro airport in Portugal\’s Algarve region, the Correio da Manha newspaper reported.

British businessman Tom Noble said he had to buy a women\’s bicycle to board a ferry home from France as the operator had no foot passenger tickets left and would only allow him on if he was a genuine cyclist.

Iceland\’s Eyjafjoell volcano erupted on Wednesday, sending ash drifting towards Europe at an altitude of about eight to 10 kilometres (five to six miles).

Europe\’s three biggest airports — Heathrow, Paris-Charles de Gaulle and Frankfurt — were closed Saturday, leaving passengers stranded across the world as a global flight backlog built up.

Australia\’s Qantas Airways meanwhile said Sunday flights to Europe would be cancelled for a third day.

The Eurostar Channel tunnel rail service reported thousands more passengers than normal were set to travel on its trains between London and continental Europe on Saturday.

In the past 20 years, there have been 80 recorded encounters between aircraft and volcanic clouds, causing the near-loss of two Boeing 747s with almost 500 people on board and damage to 20 other planes, experts said.

The International Air Transport Association estimated the shutdown was costing airlines more than 200 million dollars (230 million euros) a day.


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