British Government Criticized For Travel Chaos

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Many airlines and business leaders are accusing government officials of being overly cautious in closing European airspace for six days. But despite the financial losses and the travel chaos, there were some folks who rejoiced at the temporary halt in air traffic.


And let's go back to Europe, where the air traffic agency Eurocontrol says that flights should be back to almost 100 percent today after nearly a week of travel chaos. Many airlines resumed service on Tuesday, and in Britain, airports opened fully yesterday. But British politicians are facing many questions about whether the blanket ban on flights was really necessary and whether the ban could've been lifted earlier.

NPR's Rob Gifford reports from London.

ROB GIFFORD: Some of the most senior figures in the British airline and travel industries have condemned the shutdown and the time it took to lift it. They said the government-controlled Civil Aviation Authority had been slow to react to the volcanic eruption in Iceland last Wednesday.

One of the critics is the chief executive of British Airways, Willie Walsh.

WILLIE WALSH: I don't believe it was necessary to impose a blanket ban on all UK airspace last Thursday. My personal belief is that we could have safely continued operation for a period of time.

GIFFORD: Prime Minister Gordon Brown defended the ban and the decision to delay reopening the skies. Brown said passenger safety had been paramount, and the lockdown could only be lifted after aircraft manufacturers had produced definitive data on what constituted a safe density of ash for flying.

But Transport Secretary Andrew Adonis yesterday admitted that the overall approach of regulators across Europe might have been too careful.

ANDREW ADONIS: It's fair to say that we were too cautious - but we, being the international safety regulation community. Now why did it take six days for the regulators to reach their conclusions? The answer is they needed a good deal of experience and testing to see what was, in fact, the impact of the ash.

GIFFORD: The problem was that until Tuesday, international safety guidelines recommended a total shutdown of air travel in any area affected by volcanic ash, so the governments were following the guidelines laid down. Aircraft manufacturers then had to come up with a definition of how much ash posed a danger. That threshold of safety was finally agreed on Tuesday, after extensive test flights.

The whole situation has highlighted a uniquely European problem that the EU is composed of a patchwork of 27 separate air spaces. Eurocontrol, the inter- governmental organization for air security and navigation in Brussels, has to contend itself with coordinating national decisions rather than overseeing them. Head of Virgin Airways Richard Branson said, in some ways, this crisis may push Europe into getting its act together.

RICHARD BRANSON: I don't necessarily blame the government for a blanket ban. It was the safe option to take. I think in the future, they will learn from it, and I don't think we'll ever, ever see a blanket ban again. I think that there'll be safe ways of dealing with this which won't cause the whole of Europe to get closed down.

GIFFORD: The efforts to get tens of thousands of stranded people to their destinations have increased, with more trains, buses, ferries, and flights being laid on. Flights took off and landed through the night at London airports.

Recriminations are continuing between airlines, insurance companies and governments about who exactly should pay for the whole mess and compensate inconvenienced travelers. So for many, the drama is not over yet.

But for others less affected by the turmoil in air travel, it may well be remembered as the week everyone stopped, contemplated the craziness of modern life, lamented it a little, and then threw themselves headlong back into it.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.

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