Airlines Question Flight Ban Due To Volcanic Ash

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Major airlines have flown test flights and some pilots and airline officials say it's safe to fly despite the erupting volcano in Iceland. Eurocontrol, the air traffic agency in Brussels, said less than one-third of flights in Europe were taking off Monday. Britain is sending Royal Navy warships to rescue stranded passengers across the channel.


Great Britain, said today, that it will be sending the Royal Navy across the Channel to pick up stranded airline passengers. Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced the move as Europe tried to cope with all the ash coming from Iceland's volcano.

Elsewhere in Europe, the skies seem to be clearing - at least a bit. For the latest, we called NPR's Rob Gifford in London. Good morning.

ROB GIFFORD: Morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What is the situation there today?

GIFFORD: Well, yes, Prime Minister Gordon Brown has just announced that three Royal Navy ships will be crossing the Channel to northern France, and one actually as far as Spain to help with the pickup of the stranded British tourists and businessmen. Their estimates, there are about 150,000 British people stranded and the mobilization of the Royal Navy clearly marks a stepping up of this effort to get people home. It's been going on for five days now, and as well as the people stranded in Europe, this is trying to get people back from America and Asia and Australia. And although they are believed to be planning to fly those people into Madrid Airport, which is still open, and then to use the Royal Navy and other boats to bring them home from there.

MONTAGNE: And, Rob, I mean, that's pretty dramatic. At the same time, some airlines are saying, and a major airline group is saying, that there's been an overreaction - that this ban on flights is too much under the circumstances.

GIFFORD: That's right. Airlines have been taking a huge hit, between 200 and 300 million dollars every day. And what has been happening over the weekend, is that some of the big airlines have sent up planes into the airspace above Europe and out over the Atlantic to test, to see if the situation is as bad as has been reported. Those planes have all come back safely, and some of those airlines are now saying, look, the situation has been exaggerated. It's not as bad as have been reported, and there really needs to be a change and a reassessment of government policies that have closed all these airports.

MONTAGNE: Rob, how are the airlines, themselves, though trying to get around this problem with all those passengers stranded?

GIFFORD: Well, it's a huge problem for them, as you can imagine. And I was caught up in it, myself, at the end of last week and I had to take a variety of trains and buses across the Netherlands and Belgium and France. And just as I was heading for the port of Calais, I managed to get on the Eurostar train.

There are thousands and thousands of people like that who are not as lucky as I was in getting those last tickets. You're starting to get people shouting, standing in line for days with young children, unable to find a hotel. It's a really, really difficult situation, and this really is why Gordon Brown has stepped in - in the middle of an election campaign, of course - and is mobilizing the Royal Navy to try to help out.

MONTAGNE: Rob, great. Thank you very much.

GIFFORD: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Rob Gifford speaking to us from London.

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