European officials to ease ash-related flight restrictions

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 Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 20, 2010

WARSAW -- Under growing pressure from industry leaders and stranded travelers, European transportation ministers decided Monday to open more of the continent's airspace to commercial air traffic despite concern over a lingering cloud of ash from a volcano in Iceland.

The officials, in a continent-wide videoconference, decided that the part of Northern Europe's skies closest to the ash cloud would remain off-limits. Other less affected air corridors can be reopened Tuesday on the decision of national governments, they said.

As a result, air traffic over Northern Europe seemed likely to remain spotty and chaotic for several more days -- gradually improving, perhaps, but leaving thousands of travelers lounging about airports and besieging travel agencies in search of a flight.

"There will be no compromise on safety," Siim Kallas, the European Union's transport commissioner, said at a news conference in Brussels.

The crisis, which passed through its fourth day, provided a vivid reminder of the degree to which millions of people in the developed world have come to depend on regular airline travel for tourism, family visits, business and commerce in perishable goods. Eurocontrol, the Brussels-based body that regulates continental air traffic, said that about 28,000 flights normally would have been scheduled in the skies over Europe for Monday but that fewer than a third of them were able to take off.

Lufthansa, the German airline, announced that it would fly 50 planes back to Germany from the airports abroad where they had been grounded. The flights will bring about 15,000 travelers who had been scheduled to arrive during the past four days.

In a similar vein, Prime Minister François Fillon of France said airports in that country would reopen gradually in the coming days. Southern French airports, farther from the ash cloud, were reopened over the weekend.

To explain what caused the concern, a senior diplomat told a news agency in Brussels that several F-16 warplanes from a NATO country had returned from a flight through the ash cloud with glass-like deposits in their engines. Two Finnish F/A-18 fighter-bombers reported similar problems.

KLM, Air France and other airlines sent up planes over the weekend and reported no problems, but their aircraft had remained at relatively low altitudes, where the ash was less concentrated.

Specialists warned that, in addition to visibility problems from the cloud, deposits such as those that formed in the F-16s could pose a danger to commercial airliner engines if flights were allowed to resume. Based on those warnings, most of the continent's airspace has been closed since Friday, with officials preferring to err on the side of caution despite the financial consequences and traveler inconvenience.

"I'm dying here," said Dan Greenstein, a Boca Raton, Fla., dentist who was to return home Friday after visiting the site of a concentration camp in Poland where his grandmother and other relatives died during World War II. "I was supposed to be working Saturday. So not only am I spending a lot of money on the hotel in Poland, I'm losing a lot of money back home."

U.S. travelers in Paris complained that officials did not seem to have concrete advice on how to get home, suggesting instead that they put their names on a list and be patient. "I find it pretty troubling that travelers are informing the embassy about what's going on right now," said Timothy Newell, a nurse from Richmond. "They don't seem to have much interest in our plans or what we're going to do."

Many travelers drove long distances to find open airports with flights toward their destinations, or settled in for train trips. One Parisian visiting Krakow, Poland, planned to take an all-night train to Berlin, transfer to a train bound for Mannheim, Germany, and then try to board the Thalys high-speed train that travels through the Netherlands and Belgium on the way to the French capital -- a Krakow-to-Paris trip of nearly two days that would have taken less than three hours by plane.

The International Air Transport Association said European governments have displayed a lack of leadership and coordination in dealing with the crisis. The group's chief executive, Giovanni Bisignani, called Europe's official reaction a "mess" that is costing airlines $200 million a day and stranding 750,000 travelers.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, meanwhile, announced the dispatch of three warships to pick up Britons stuck on the other side of the English Channel. One of the ships was headed to Spain to collect soldiers returning from Afghanistan, officials said.

British Airways and other major airlines want compensation for the loss of income caused by the flight bans. Such payments normally would be barred under European Union competition rules. But Joaquín Almunia, who handles competition matters for the commission, said he would investigate whether an exception could be made along the lines of the compensation paid to airlines after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks froze air travel.

Special correspondent Cameron Smith in Paris contributed to this report.

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