, LONDON, Apr 17 – Millions of people faced worsening travel chaos Saturday as a volcanic ash cloud from Iceland, which risks lingering over Europe for up to five more days, forced countries to extend flight bans.
France decided to shut the three airports in the Paris area and others in the north of the country until 8:00 am (0600 GMT) on Monday due to the ash cloud that has caused the biggest airspace shutdown since World War II.
Britain, Denmark and Germany officially lengthened bans on most flights in their airspace until 0000 GMT Sunday.
However British Airways said it had decided to cancel all of its Sunday short-haul flights to and from London\’s Heathrow and Gatwick airports.
Scandinavian airline SAS added that all its flights in the region would be grounded until after the weekend with the exception of a handful of domestic flights in northern Norway.
Winds blowing the massive cloud eastward from Iceland to Russia will continue in the same direction for at least two days and could go on until the middle of next week, the Icelandic Meteorological Office said on Saturday.
"The ash will continue to be directed towards Britain and Scandinavia," Teitur Arason, a meteorologist at the Icelandic Meteorological Office, told AFP.
"That\’s the general situation for the coming days … more or less for the next two days or maybe the next four or five days," he said.
Ireland reimposed flight bans over its airspace until at least 1700 GMT on Saturday, while Austria, Belgium and Switzerland said they would allow no flights until 1800 GMT.
Poland said it was shutting its airspace "until further notice".
The closure of Poland\’s airspace has thrown into doubt the attendance of world leaders including US President Barack Obama, due in the southern city of Krakow on Sunday for the funeral of president Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria.
The Kaczynski couple were among 96 people, most of them Polish dignitaries, killed in a plane crash in Russia last Saturday on their way to a World War II memorial service.
Some 16,000 flights in European airspace on Saturday have been cancelled due to the cloud of volcanic ash, said Eurocontrol, which coordinates air traffic control in 38 nations.
Whereas a normal Saturday would see 22,000 flights in Europe, Eurocontrol said only about 6,000 would be operating — and out of a routine 300-odd incoming transatlantic flights, a mere 73 had so far arrived.
The drifting dust had already forced the cancellation of about 16,000 flights on Friday.
The volcano on the Eyjafjallajokull glacier erupted on Wednesday, sending ash drifting towards Europe at an altitude of about eight to 10 kilometres (five to six miles).
British weather forecast service the Met Office indicated that "the volcanic ash cloud from Iceland was moving around and changing shape," Britain\’s National Air Traffic Services (NATS) said in a statement.
NATS added that "restrictions currently in place across UK controlled airspace will remain in place until at least 0100 UK time tomorrow."
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.
An official for the Eurostar Channel tunnel rail service reported thousands more passengers than normal were set to travel on its trains between London and the continent Saturday.
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.
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.
A Belgium transport ministry spokesman on Saturday said contamination from the latest ash cloud "remains widespread, from Britain to Russia".
The International Air Transport Association meanwhile warned Friday of the economic fallout from the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in southeast Iceland.
According to their figures it was costing airlines more than 200 million dollars (230 million euros) a day.
British food retailers shrugged off fears that customers would not get their hands on perishable goods.
A spokesman for Marks and Spencer said: "Some fruit, veg and flower lines do arrive by air. At this stage we are not expecting any supply problems, but we are of course keeping a close eye on the situation."
The shutdown also played havoc with diplomatic schedules. German Chancellor Angela Merkel had been due back in Berlin on Friday from a trip to the United States, but was diverted to Lisbon, and was set to fly to Rome on Saturday.
Even US pop superstar Whitney Houston had to take a car ferry from Britain to Ireland for a concert in Dublin.