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European airspace reopens

LONDON, Apr 21 – Europe\’s airspace reopened for business on Wednesday after all its major airports resumed operations, sending passengers scrambling to hitch a flight home and airlines to count the cost of the crisis.

Three-quarters of flights scheduled in Europe should take place, said the body coordinating air traffic across the continent, a week after a volcanic eruption in Iceland caused the worst disruption to aviation since World War II.

While experts in Iceland said the Eyjafjjoell volcano had lost most of its fury, angry airline bosses added up the cost of the crisis which their umbrella body said had cost 1.7 billion dollars (1.3 billion euros).

After authorities in Britain finally reopened the whole of its airspace on Tuesday night, all of Europe\’s main air hubs were up and running once more with Germany reopening its airspace from 0900 GMT. Even Nordic countries such as Norway, Denmark and Sweden were following suit.

"Eurocontrol expects approximately 21,000 flights to take place today in European airspace. On a normal Wednesday, we would expect 28,000," said a statement from the Europe-wide coordinating body.

Millions of passengers had their travel plans affected since governments closed their airspace last Thursday and IATA, the body representing the global airline industry, put the overall cost of the crisis at 1.7 billion dollars.

At the height of the upheaval on Saturday and Sunday, carriers were losing 400 million dollars per day, IATA chief Giovanni Bisignani told reporters.

"We\’ve seen a week without revenue but that has not stopped the costs," he said, adding that European governments "must take their responsibility" and help the carriers.

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British Airways chief executive Willie Walsh had branded the ban unnecessary, with the disruption heaping further misery on an airline still reeling from a recent strike.

Flights were finally cleared for landing at London\’s Heathrow airport on Tuesday night after BA flew around two dozen long-haul planes back to Britain even before the no-fly zone was lifted.

Some were initially turned away and forced to land at other airports but there were scenes of jubilation on other planes when their pilots announced they had been cleared to land at Heathrow, Europe\’s busiest airport.

British newspapers said Prime Minister Gordon Brown\’s Labour government, facing an election next month, had been "bounced" into a climbdown after a dramatic game of brinkmanship.

British Airways said they were hoping to operate all longhaul flights from Heathrow and Gatwick as normal Wednesday but warned of shorthaul cancellations to and from London airports up to 1200 GMT.

Virgin Atlantic planned to run its normal schedule, while warning that a small number of flights may be delayed as aircraft and crews are deployed to the right places.

Wolfgang Mayrhuber, the head of Lufthansa and who was another outspoken critic of the air embargo, said his group expected to operate around 500 flights, a third of its normal service, after Germany opened all its airspace.

All long-haul passenger services from Paris\’ main international hub Charles de Gaulle were operating as scheduled, airport officials said.

Emirates said it was trying to operate as many flights as possible but warned on its website that "the situation across Europe remains unpredictable and passengers are asked to be patient".

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There was light at the end of the tunnels for tens of thousands of Europeans who have been stuck in Asia with airlines such Air China announcing all its Europe flights would be departing.

But Frances Tuke, a spokeswoman for the British travel organisation Abta, warned passengers against getting their hopes up as many aircraft and crew "are going to be in the wrong place".

"I know for example that some of our tour operators have decided to cancel their programmes going out of the UK in order that they can try to reposition their aircraft and crew," she said. "It\’s a huge logistical operation."

In Iceland, the civil protection agency said the Eyjafjjoell volcano had lost nearly 80 percent of its intensity since its weekend peak.

"The last information we have is that eruption has about 20 percent of the power it had Saturday," spokeswoman Ingveldur Thordardottir told AFP.

One of the country\’s leading seismologists said the emission of ash has fallen to "insignificant" levels.

"Explosive activity has diminished. Ash production has gone down. It\’s really insignificant right now," said Pall Einarsson, from Iceland\’s Institute of Earth Sciences.

Einarsson however said the volcano had "not gone to sleep" and that it was impossible to predict when it would stop erupting.

Amid the arguments, UN officials announced scientists, government officials and airline industry representatives would meet soon to learn lessons.

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"There are no standards at the moment on the concentration of ash that could affect" airplane engines, Roberto Kobeh Gonzalez, the head of the UN International Civil Aviation Organization, told reporters when asked if it was safe to fly with the volcano still actively expelling ash.

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