Ash Cloud Chokes Air Travel Across Europe

  • British passengers board HMS Albion on April 20 in Santander, Spain. The Royal Navy's ship, carrying service personnel home from Afghanistan, stopped to collect approximately 200 British citizens who were left stranded when their flights were canceled because of volcanic ash.
    Hide caption
    British passengers board HMS Albion on April 20 in Santander, Spain. The Royal Navy's ship, carrying service personnel home from Afghanistan, stopped to collect approximately 200 British citizens who were left stranded when their flights were canceled because of volcanic ash.
    Markel Redondo/Getty Images
  • Smoke and ash from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano blow across a field April 19 near Nupur, Iceland.
    Hide caption
    Smoke and ash from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano blow across a field April 19 near Nupur, Iceland.
    Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
  • A farm worker loads a truck with discarded fresh roses at a flower exporter's farm April 19 in Naivasha, Kenya. Kenya's flower exports are wilting under the economic burden of European airspace closures, leaving growers facing huge losses. These flowers had been packed and were ready to export but are now going to compost.
    Hide caption
    A farm worker loads a truck with discarded fresh roses at a flower exporter's farm April 19 in Naivasha, Kenya. Kenya's flower exports are wilting under the economic burden of European airspace closures, leaving growers facing huge losses. These flowers had been packed and were ready to export but are now going to compost.
    Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images
  • Lava erupts from the volcano under Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull glacier on April 19.  Europe began to emerge from a volcanic cloud Monday, allowing limited air traffic to resume and giving hope to millions of travelers stranded around the world.
    Hide caption
    Lava erupts from the volcano under Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull glacier on April 19. Europe began to emerge from a volcanic cloud Monday, allowing limited air traffic to resume and giving hope to millions of travelers stranded around the world.
    Brynjar Gauti/AP
  • A family from Reading, England, embraces after getting bus tickets to France at the bus station in Barcelona, Spain, on April 19. The family had been stranded in Barcelona since April 15.
    Hide caption
    A family from Reading, England, embraces after getting bus tickets to France at the bus station in Barcelona, Spain, on April 19. The family had been stranded in Barcelona since April 15.
    David Ramos/AP
  • Men labor to remove volcanic ash from the roof of a house, in Seljavellir, Iceland,  April 18.
    Hide caption
    Men labor to remove volcanic ash from the roof of a house, in Seljavellir, Iceland, April 18.
    Brynjar Gauti/AP
  • Passengers wait to buy tickets at Termini central train station in Rome on April 18. Stranded airline travelers are turning to alternative transportation in attempts to get home.
    Hide caption
    Passengers wait to buy tickets at Termini central train station in Rome on April 18. Stranded airline travelers are turning to alternative transportation in attempts to get home.
    Andreas Solaro/Getty Image
  • The Icelandic volcano that has kept much of Europe land-bound is far from finished spitting out its grit, and it offered up new mini-eruptions April 17.
    Hide caption
    The Icelandic volcano that has kept much of Europe land-bound is far from finished spitting out its grit, and it offered up new mini-eruptions April 17.
    Brynjar Gauti/AP
  • Farmers team up to rescue cattle from exposure to the toxic volcanic ash at a farm in Nupur, Iceland, April 17.
    Hide caption
    Farmers team up to rescue cattle from exposure to the toxic volcanic ash at a farm in Nupur, Iceland, April 17.
    Brynjar Gauti/AP
  • Ice chunks carried downstream by floodwaters caused by volcanic activity lie on the Markarfljot riverbank April 16, about 75 miles east of Iceland's capital of Reykjavik.
    Hide caption
    Ice chunks carried downstream by floodwaters caused by volcanic activity lie on the Markarfljot riverbank April 16, about 75 miles east of Iceland's capital of Reykjavik.
    Brynjar Gauti/AP
  • Men near Myrdalssandur, Iceland, wrap a house vent in plastic film on April 16 to prevent the entry of airborne volcanic ash. Winds pushed the ash plume south and east across Britain, Ireland, and Scandinavia into the heart of Europe.
    Hide caption
    Men near Myrdalssandur, Iceland, wrap a house vent in plastic film on April 16 to prevent the entry of airborne volcanic ash. Winds pushed the ash plume south and east across Britain, Ireland, and Scandinavia into the heart of Europe.
    Brynjar Gauti/AP
  • Footprints in volcanic ash in eastern Iceland, left by scientists who collected samples to send to labs.
    Hide caption
    Footprints in volcanic ash in eastern Iceland, left by scientists who collected samples to send to labs.
    Omar Oskarsson/AFP/Getty Images
  • The MODIS instrument on NASA's Terra satellite captured an ash plume from Eyjafjallajokull volcano over the North Atlantic on April 15.
    Hide caption
    The MODIS instrument on NASA's Terra satellite captured an ash plume from Eyjafjallajokull volcano over the North Atlantic on April 15.
    MODIS Rapid Response Team/NASA via Getty Images
  • People wait for information about their flights at the Sofia airport in Bulgaria on April 16. Volcanic smoke and ash affect pilots' visibility and microscopic debris can cause plane engines to shut down.
    Hide caption
    People wait for information about their flights at the Sofia airport in Bulgaria on April 16. Volcanic smoke and ash affect pilots' visibility and microscopic debris can cause plane engines to shut down.
    Nikolay Doychinov/AFP/Getty Images
  • Smoke and steam hang over the volcano under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier on April 14. Volcanic ash drifting across the Atlantic forced the cancellation of flights in Britain and disrupted air traffic across northern Europe, stranding thousands of passengers.
    Hide caption
    Smoke and steam hang over the volcano under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier on April 14. Volcanic ash drifting across the Atlantic forced the cancellation of flights in Britain and disrupted air traffic across northern Europe, stranding thousands of passengers.
    Jon Gustafsson/AP
  • An image released by Meteosat on April 15 shows a dark cloud of volcanic ash over Iceland. As the ash spreads across northern Europe, it is forcing the closure of huge swaths of international airspace.
    Hide caption
    An image released by Meteosat on April 15 shows a dark cloud of volcanic ash over Iceland. As the ash spreads across northern Europe, it is forcing the closure of huge swaths of international airspace.
    HO/AFP/Getty Images
  • A man takes a picture of a road that has been washed away by floodwaters from the melting Eyjafjallajokull glacier, caused by the April 14 eruption.
    Hide caption
    A man takes a picture of a road that has been washed away by floodwaters from the melting Eyjafjallajokull glacier, caused by the April 14 eruption.
    Halldor Kolbeins/AFP/Getty Images
  • Iceland's second volcano eruption in less than a month caused part of the glacier to melt, resulting in heavy flooding and forcing up to 800 people to evacuate.
    Hide caption
    Iceland's second volcano eruption in less than a month caused part of the glacier to melt, resulting in heavy flooding and forcing up to 800 people to evacuate.
    HO/AFP/Getty Images
  • Ash from Iceland's latest volcanic eruption has caused the suspension of all London flights, on top of the nearly 300 flights already canceled.
    Hide caption
    Ash from Iceland's latest volcanic eruption has caused the suspension of all London flights, on top of the nearly 300 flights already canceled.
    AFP/Getty Images
  • Smoke billows from an erupting volcano near the Eyjafjallajokull glacier on April 14, near Reykjavik.
    Hide caption
    Smoke billows from an erupting volcano near the Eyjafjallajokull glacier on April 14, near Reykjavik.
    Arni Saeberg/AFP/Getty Images
  • Lava lights up the night sky at the Fimmvorduhals volcano on March 27.
    Hide caption
    Lava lights up the night sky at the Fimmvorduhals volcano on March 27.
    Halldor Kolbeins/AFP/Getty Images
  • With lava still gushing, a small Icelandic volcano that initially sent hundreds fleeing from their homes has turned into a boon for the island nation's tourism industry, as visitors flock to catch a glimpse of the eruption.
    Hide caption
    With lava still gushing, a small Icelandic volcano that initially sent hundreds fleeing from their homes has turned into a boon for the island nation's tourism industry, as visitors flock to catch a glimpse of the eruption.
    Halldor Kolbeins/AFP/Getty Images
  • Tourists gather to watch lava spurt out of the Fimmvorduhals volcano, near the Eyjafjallajokull glacier.
    Hide caption
    Tourists gather to watch lava spurt out of the Fimmvorduhals volcano, near the Eyjafjallajokull glacier.
    Halldor Kolbeins/AFP/Getty Images
  • The March eruption occurred in an area where there is no glacial ice, which minimized the risk of flooding.
    Hide caption
    The March eruption occurred in an area where there is no glacial ice, which minimized the risk of flooding.
    Ragnar Axelsson/AFP/Getty Images
  • The volcanic eruption on March 21 forced more than 600 people to flee their homes in Iceland.
    Hide caption
    The volcanic eruption on March 21 forced more than 600 people to flee their homes in Iceland.
    Fiur Kjartansson/AFP/Getty Images
  • Smoke and ash spew out of a mountain volcano on March 21, 2010, in the region of the Eyjafjallajokull glacier in Iceland.
    Hide caption
    Smoke and ash spew out of a mountain volcano on March 21, 2010, in the region of the Eyjafjallajokull glacier in Iceland.
    Fiur Kjartansson/AFP/Getty Images

1 of 26

View slideshow i

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.

"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."

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.

Related NPR Stories

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: