European Flights Resume, But Ash Still A Threat

Stranded airline passengers in Barcelona, Spain i

Stranded airline passengers queue for information at El Prat international airport in Barcelona, Spain. All flights in and out of Barcelona's El Prat and 16 other Spanish airports have been grounded by the volcanic ash drifting across Europe. Jasper Juinen/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Jasper Juinen/Getty Images
Stranded airline passengers in Barcelona, Spain

Stranded airline passengers queue for information at El Prat international airport in Barcelona, Spain. All flights in and out of Barcelona's El Prat and 16 other Spanish airports have been grounded by the volcanic ash drifting across Europe.

Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

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 when ash choked the jet age to a halt.

Even then, however, the eruption from the Icelandic volcano that caused the five days of aviation chaos was said to be strengthening and sending more ash toward Britain, which could make it unlikely that London airports would reopen Tuesday.

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Three KLM passenger planes left Schiphol airport in Amsterdam on Monday evening during daylight under visual flight rules bound for New York, Dubai and Shanghai. An Associated Press photographer saw one jet taking off into a colorful sunset, which weather officials said was pinker than normal due to the ash.

European Union transport ministers struck a deal to divide airspace above the continent into three zones based on the danger level posed to aircraft beginning Tuesday morning. Under the plan, planes remain completely restricted from flying into the area closest to the volcano because of the amount of ash in the air; some flights will be allowed into a medium-danger area; and all flights will be restored into the third area that is free of ash.

Siim Kallas, the EU's transport commissioner, said the financial impact the ash plume has had on the airline industry is already greater than the travel restrictions that resulted from the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

Germany was the first to announce that it would grant Cologne-based Lufthansa an exemption to fly 50 long-haul planes carrying 15,000 passengers back home below the cloud of volcanic ash hanging over Europe. The United Kingdom said it would lift restrictions on Scottish airspace Tuesday morning, while France planned to gradually reopen airports and create air corridors to Paris to help ease the transport crisis caused by an erupting Icelandic volcano.

Kallas said after a videoconference with EU transport ministers and industry officials that "the decision increases airspace available to air traffic. This is the final outcome."

The EU said as of Tuesday morning "we should see more planes starting to fly."

The slew of announcements came as the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, whose eruption last week threw European air travel into chaos, continued to spew particles and ash into the atmosphere. But in Iceland, meteorologists said eruptions from the volcano were weakening and the ash was no longer rising to a height where it would endanger large commercial aircraft.

Meanwhile, airline officials lashed out at EU authorities who they said had had a costly overreaction to the crisis.

At a meeting in Paris, the International Air Transport Association said European transport officials had shown "no coordination and no leadership" during the crisis. Over the weekend, Air France, KLM, Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines carried out test flights without passengers and reported no damage from the ash.

"It's embarrassing, and a European mess," IATA CEO Giovanni Bisignani told The Associated Press. "It took five days to organize a conference call with the ministers of transport and we are losing $200 million per day [and] 750,000 passengers are stranded all over. Does it make sense?"

French Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau said earlier Monday that officials would "try to outline corridors, if we can, based on the evolution of the cloud, to allow the reopening of as large a number of flight paths as possible, as quickly as possible and in good security conditions."

Britain's Royal Navy said it was deploying warships to bring its citizens who have been stranded on the Continent for the past week back across the English Channel. For them, returning to Britain by sea is the only option.

European carriers have been the hardest hit, but flights from around the world are routed through major airports on the Continent, worsening the crisis. IATA officials say the costs of the travel crisis are higher than the three-day disruption of air traffic after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

London’s Heathrow was the first major airport to shut down, and British Airways said it was losing $30 million a day. The airline said carriers have asked the EU for financial compensation for the closure of airspace, starting last Wednesday.

Officials are concerned that the ash can damage jet engines and could cause commercial jetliners to crash.

Air freight, a mainstay of many "just in time" assembly lines, also has been hammered by the shutdown in traffic. Kenya's fresh-flower industry is losing $2 million a day, and fresh fruit from Africa destined for Europe is reportedly rotting in warehouses. Still, economists say Europe's economic recovery should not be derailed unless the disruption lasts for many weeks or months.

Eurocontrol, the air traffic agency in Brussels, said fewer than one-third of flights in Europe were taking off Monday — between 8,000 and 9,000 of the Continent's 28,000 scheduled flights.

About 63,000 flights have been canceled since Thursday.

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines said it had conducted four successful test flights Sunday through a "gap" in the layer of microscopic dust over Holland and Germany.

Lufthansa flew 10 empty long-haul planes Saturday to Frankfurt from Munich at low altitude, between 10,000 and 26,000 feet, said spokesman Wolfgang Weber.

"We simply checked every single aircraft very carefully after the landing in Frankfurt to see whether there was any damage that could have been caused by volcanic ash," Weber said. "Not the slightest scratch was found on any of the 10 planes."

Scientists say that because the volcano is situated below a glacial ice cap, magma is being cooled quickly, causing explosions and plumes of grit that can be catastrophic to plane engines, depending on prevailing winds.

In 1989, a KLM Boeing 747 that flew through a volcanic ash cloud above Alaska briefly lost power to all four engines. They were restarted at a lower altitude and the plane landed safely.



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