European Flights Resume But Backlog Remains

Roughly half the scheduled flights in Europe are expected to take off Tuesday. But some airports are still closed, and European officials are keeping a wary eye on the Icelandic volcano that's been pushing ash their way for nearly a week now.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Today, roughly half of the scheduled flights in Europe are expected to take off. According to the Euro-controlled air traffic agency in Brussels, about 55 to 60 percent of flights should go ahead. But some airports are still closed, and European officials are keeping an eye on the Icelandic volcano.

NPR's Rob Gifford is in London, joins us now. Hi, Rob.

ROB GIFFORD: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So who's starting to fly, where?

GIFFORD: Well, good question. It's a very, very fluid situation. Last night, it looked as though there was going to be a quite a large-scale, phased opening of airports across Britain and across Europe. Overnight, there's been a slight change of that because of more smoke, more ash that is coming across from Iceland, and they're watching it very carefully.

Airports in Scotland in opened. Here in Britain, they say that London airports are not going to be open today, but across Europe, as well, with one eye on the northwest towards Iceland. Places like Amsterdam and Paris and some airports in Germany are having what they're calling a phased opening where flights, approved flights, are being allowed to take off and land under certain conditions. But it seems that that could change at any time.

INSKEEP: You get a sense that two things are happening here, Rob Gifford, one of them that the ash cloud waxes and wanes, but the other being that people are continually reevaluating how much risk they're willing to take and how risky they think the ash cloud is.

GIFFORD: That's absolutely right. And thrown into this, certainly here in Britain today, are big questions being raised about the British Meteorological Office and the sort of mathematical projections that they've been doing, a lot of being done with modeling, with scientific modeling, looking at the ash cloud and what it might do - and a huge amount of criticism now being leveled at the meteorological office, that it's not been based enough on empirical data.

And this is now the debate, I think, that's going to be the focus here in Britain and possibly across Europe is, actually, does the empirical data that they're getting show that these flights should not take off? Because there's a lot of feeling here and a lot of criticism that this has all been a very big overreaction. And that debate is ongoing today, and I'm sure will carry on.

INSKEEP: I'm sure some of the people frustrated by what they may see as an overreaction are travelers stranded still in airports.

GIFFORD: Absolutely. And there are 150,000 Britons alone stranded overseas. Of course, hundreds of thousands of other nationalities, as well. We saw Gordon Brown, the prime minister here in Britain, announcing three Royal Navy ships were going across the channel today. One of those reached northern Spain today to bring back some soldiers who'd flown in from Afghanistan and a limited amount of civilians, people who were stuck there.

But really, that's a drop in the ocean, if you like. They can get, what, a couple of hundred people on board, maybe a couple of thousand, and there's still tens of thousands still stuck. And, obviously, after nearly after a week stranded, there's a lot of anger there.

INSKEEP: Well, I have to ask, because, obviously, there's the question of convenience, but also the question of profits. How much of the protest against these closings has been driven by the airlines here?

GIFFORD: Well, that's a very good question, and the airlines, just in the last 24, 36 hours, have become much more vocal about this whole issue. Many people here are saying that it was an overreaction. Of course, this is burning a big hole in their pocket to the tune of something between 200 and $300 million a day.

But that debate is being engaged much more. I think in the early days, there was a feeling of, oh, really, this does look dangerous, so we must close down. But now we're hearing much more debate, and I think the airlines are definitely a part of that. And, of course, they want to take off as soon as they can. It's just a question of safety. Is it safe enough for them to do so?

INSKEEP: In just a couple of seconds, is more ash on the way?

GIFFORD: It seems as though some is. We're hearing from Iceland as though more ash is on the way, and that could pose, of course, many more problems.

INSKEEP: Rob, thanks very much.

GIFFORD: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Getting the latest now from Europe. NPR's Rob Gifford, reporting this morning from London.

You hear him on MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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