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Ash Cloud Chokes Air Travel Across Europe

Airports across northern Europe stayed shut Friday as a gritty plume of volcano ash drifted over the Continent, stranding hundreds of thousands of frustrated air travelers and causing global disruptions that may last for days.

In Belgium, the agency that coordinates European air traffic, Eurocontrol, said flights over the Continent had been more than halved for the day — from 28,000 normally to just 12,000. It said delays will continue into Saturday as the massive yet invisible ash cloud moves slowly south and east.

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"There will be significant disruption of air traffic tomorrow," spokesman Brian Flynn said Friday, adding that the agency would hold a meeting Monday of aviation officials from all 40 Eurocontrol countries.

As many as 600,000 airline passengers may have been affected by the cancellations.

Authorities have shut down airspace over Britain, Ireland, France, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Belgium because of unsafe flying conditions. Flights at Europe's two busiest airports, London's Heathrow and Charles de Gaulle in Paris, have been halted, along with those at dozens of other airports across the region.

The Irish Aviation Authority, however, said the ash cloud had moved away from Ireland's southeast and that restrictions would be lifted on most of its airspace. France said it would allow some planes to land at three Paris airports during a four-hour window. Airports in Britain were closed at least through Saturday morning.

At New York's John F. Kennedy Airport, English and Irish tourists were stranded in Terminal 4.

"We still don't know when we are flying," said passenger Peter Druge, who was scheduled to fly to London Thursday with his wife, Deb, and their son, Jacob.

His wife seemed more resigned.

"You know a volcano is a volcano, there is nothing we can do about it," Deb Druge said. "So we have to go with the flow as it were, and take it hour by hour, really."

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Continental Airlines said it had canceled more than 57 flights between the U.S. and Europe. Tim Smith, a spokesman for American Airlines, said the number for American was 56. Flights were still departing to Spain and Italy, he said.

"They keep setting tentative times in which they hope to get back in, but that has happened literally two or three times since this began and in every case it's been extended to a later date," Smith said.

Mike Boyd, president of Boyd Group International, an aviation consulting firm, said it might be three weeks before things return to normal.

Air officials were concerned that microscopic particles of pulverized rock spewing from the volcano, which is located beneath Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull glacier, could damage jet engines and possibly bring down commercial airliners.

A Finnish F-18 Hornet fighter jet had flown "for about an hour" when it nearly overheated as the ash blocked its air scoops, air force spokesman Joni Malkamaki said.

The cloud from Wednesday's eruption was drifting above 20,000 feet, high and invisible from the ground.

The United Kingdom's air traffic control service released a statement Friday saying the situation "cannot be said to be improving with any certainty."

Among the passengers affected by the flight chaos was Geert De Stecker, who had expected to fly out of Brussels on Friday evening for Thailand, where he is to be married next week. That flight was canceled, and he said prospects for getting another plane to Bangkok in the next few days looked grim.

"No one can even tell me when they are going to open the airport, and the airplanes aren't even where they are supposed to be because of the closings," De Stecker told NPR. "They have put me on a waiting list for tomorrow, but it doesn't look likely that I will get out before next week."

Don Shields, an American IT consultant living in London, was on business in Stockholm when his flight was canceled Thursday.

"Just to confirm that I was in travel hell, the hotel I booked in after my flight was canceled put me in room 666," Shields said.

Speaking to NPR from a train en route to Copenhagen, he said he had "no idea" where he would go after arriving there. "I am just moving to London, in stages," said Shields, who hoped to rent a car and get farther south — possibly catching a flight out of Amsterdam once the airport reopens.

"The real issue seems to be the rental car companies aren't allowing cross-border rental," Shields said. He added that the rental agents are afraid of having too many vehicles stuck outside their country of origin.

Officials at the train operator Eurostar said the rail service was carrying nearly 50,000 people between London, Paris and Brussels. The service is booked through Monday. The high-speed Thalys train, a joint venture among France, Belgium and Germany, was taking more bookings than it could accommodate.

The cancellations are costing the airline industry $200 million a day in lost revenues, according to the International Air Transport Association.

"In addition to lost revenues, airlines will incur added costs from rerouting aircraft, care for stranded passengers and stranded aircraft at various ports," IATA said.

Experts couldn't say with certainty when the Icelandic eruptions would end or quiet to the point that resuming air traffic was safe. British volcanologist Hazel Rymer said eruptions such as the one in Iceland can last from several days to several months.

"History tells us that when this particular volcano erupts, it can influence the volcano right next to it, which is bigger and rather more dangerous, potentially," Rymer said.

The World Health Organization urged Europeans to stay indoors if ash from Iceland's volcano starts settling. Small amounts fell in Iceland, Scotland and Norway.

Still, not everyone was complaining about the halting of air traffic across the continent.

Margaret Thorburn, who lives four miles from London's Heathrow Airport, told NPR's Robert Siegel that she got to sleep in an extra hour Friday because of the quiet.

"This particular ash cloud has a very big silver lining, as far as we are concerned in West London," she said.

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