Volcanic ash from Iceland forces cancellation of flights, disrupts travel for thousands

Seventeen thousand flights have been canceled today caused by a giant cloud of ash from the volcano eruption in Iceland.
By Karla Adam, Ashley Halsey III and Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 16, 2010; 3:29 PM

LONDON -- The cloud of volcanic ash that wafted in from Iceland continued to severely disrupt flights across much of Europe on Friday, causing ripple effects that are likely to snarl air traffic around the globe for days.

Eurocontrol, the European air traffic coordinating agency, said travel disruptions on Friday were likely to be worse than on Thursday, with airspace completely closed in the U.K. (excluding Scotland), Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Estonia, and partially closed in France, Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic.

"The cloud of volcanic ash is continuing to move east and south-east and that the impact will continue for at least the next 24 hours," Eurocontrol said in a statement. About 16,000 flights scheduled to fly through European airspace on Friday were canceled, twice as many as the previous day, the agency said, and about half of the 600 daily flights between the continent and North America were delayed or scrubbed.

London Heathrow, Paris-Charles de Gaulle and Frankfurt Airport -- Europe's three largest airport hubs -- remained closed for most of Friday. Britain's National Air Traffic Services (NATS) said that restrictions on airspace in England would remain until at least Saturday at 7 a.m. Airports in northern France, including the Paris hubs of Rossy and Orly, will stay closed until at least midday Saturday, the French aviation authority said.

However, the situation was apt to change throughout the day, with parts of airspace in Ireland and Sweden and northern Britain opening up. Further updates were expected Friday evening.

"In general, the situation is dynamic and subject to change," NATS said in a statement on its Web site.

If the particle-laden cloud lingers through the weekend -- and there were predictions it would take two days to clear once the eruptions stop -- it could disrupt plans for President Obama and other world leaders to attend Sunday's state funeral for Polish President Lech Kaczynski, who died in a plane crash last week.

Jacek Sasin, a Polish presidential official, told reporters that the funeral would go ahead as scheduled.

The high-speed rail operator Eurostar said that all of its 58 services on Friday between London and Paris and Brussels -- shuttling just over 46,000 people -- were completely sold out. A spokeswoman said tickets are still available online for travel over the weekend, but warned they were selling "very quickly."

The paralysis that began in London and Paris early Thursday soon spread to Hong Kong and Tokyo, to Nairobi and Buenos Aires, and to New York and both of the Washington area's international airports. It was, by all accounts, one of the most bizarre acts of nature ever to constrict world travel, and it grounded tens of thousands of passengers internationally.

Until the eruption, which began last month, Iceland's long volcanic history was little known beyond trivia games, but as that legacy surfaced Thursday, so did news that the last time the Eyjafjallajokull volcano exploded -- 187 years ago -- the eruptions went on for more than a year.

Experts say the weather radar on aircraft cannot detect the cloud of ash and that the particles could choke jet engines enough to shut them down.

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