European air-travel crisis worsens with no end in sight

The Eyjafjallajokull volcano in southern Iceland has erupted twice in less than a month, raising concerns that it could trigger a larger and more dangerous eruption at a volatile volcano nearby.
By Anthony Faiola and Karla Adam
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 18, 2010

LONDON -- An air-travel crisis caused by a spectacular volcanic cloud emanating from Iceland escalated sharply Saturday, with President Obama and other world leaders forced to cancel plans to attend the Polish president's funeral and millions of passengers from Washington to New Delhi left stranded by a bottleneck that could last for weeks.

Across Europe, commercial flight bans were in force in 24 countries, with some closing airports through Monday. But as majestic Eyjafjallajokull volcano continued an eruption that began Wednesday, the reality was dawning that air access to much of the region could be cut off for far longer, with potentially severe consequences for aviation-related industries and businesses dependent on air freight, such as those dealing in perishable goods.

Concerns have also been raised that a long period of closures and delays could affect the pace of European economic recovery when it is lagging behind that of the United States.

On Saturday, no end seemed in sight. Even when the eruption does stop, experts said, the high-altitude plumes of grit, which can cause jet engines to fail, could take at least two days to disperse.

"We're at the mercy of when the volcano dies down," said Graeme Leitch, of Britain's national weather agency. "It's up to the gods how long this goes on for."

Given the global links of international air travel, the problems in Europe were beginning to spread chaos worldwide. As far away as Singapore, the backup of international passengers was so bad that hotels rooms were becoming hard to find in the city-state.

Some airlines were offering little compensation, leaving cash-strapped travelers to turn a number of international airports into impromptu emergency shelters. Across Europe, meanwhile, authorities were weighing cancellations of championship soccer matches and heads of state were altering travel plans.

In addition to Obama, South Korean Prime Minister Chung Un-chan and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper abandoned plans to fly to Poland for the funeral Sunday of late President Lech Kaczynski and his wife, who were killed in an air crash April 10. All airspace in the country remained closed Saturday to flights above the cloud level of 20,000 feet.

In a statement released by the White House hours before his scheduled departure Saturday, Obama said: "Michelle and I continue to have the Polish people in our thoughts and prayers, and will support them in any way I can as they recover from this terrible tragedy. President Kaczynski was a patriot and close friend and ally of the United States, as were those who died alongside him, and the American people will never forget the lives they led."

U.S. troops injured in Iraq and Afghanistan were being flown directly to Andrews Air Force Base for treatment in the United States rather than at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, the usual first stop for the wounded. Military planes unable to land in Germany because of the volcanic ash will refuel in midair or in Italy, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.

Immediate impact

In Europe, economists were assessing the longer-term impact of the historic flight disruptions, but winners and losers were emerging. Airlines and air-freight companies were the most affected, with the aviation industry facing losses estimated at $200 million a day. British Airways and other airlines said they are not insured against groundings by volcanic clouds.

Rail lines were seeing booming business, however, with many adding trains and operating at standing-room-only capacity. Auto rental agencies in Paris were running out of cars, and some taxi companies were scoring enormous cross-national fares.

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