Flights resume in Europe, but new eruptions cloud plans

By Anthony Faiola and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 20, 2010; 4:35 PM

LONDON -- Britain announced it is reopening its airspace and airports Tuesday night after five days of widespread closures in Europe because of volcanic ash clouds, but other nations extended flight restrictions until Wednesday amid continuing concerns about the risk to aircraft from an erupting volcano in Iceland.

The government said London's Heathrow Airport, Europe's busiest, and other British airports would reopen Tuesday at 9 p.m. GMT (5 p.m. EDT). With British airspace reopening at the same time, allowing flights into Britain to resume, British Airways said it hoped to land as many as 25 flights in London on Tuesday night from the United States, Africa and Asia.

But more delays were possible as passengers grappled with a patchwork of different restrictions among European countries. In Germany, for example, authorities closed the airspace until at least midnight GMT (8 p.m. EDT) for regular flights except those using the Hamburg and Bremen airports, which were allowed to open between 9 p.m. GMT and midnight. However, airlines were allowed to operate about 800 flights Tuesday from all German airports under visual flight rules.

By contrast, Denmark and Poland were among countries that said they would reopen their airports Wednesday.

Among nations reopening their airports early Tuesday were Italy, Switzerland, France, Hungary, Slovenia and Moldova. Many flights remained canceled, however. In Italy, for example, only a handful of flights -- mostly domestic ones -- took off in the morning.

In Britain, the National Air Traffic Service initially said much of the country's airspace would remain closed to flights below 20,000 feet until at least midnight GMT following warnings from air traffic controllers that major routes were threatened by new ash clouds. London's Heathrow Airport stayed closed for much of the day, as did airspace in Finland, Poland and parts of Sweden and Ireland. But airports in the northern United Kingdom were allowed to open.

Other nations were scrambling to adjust to the atmospheric conditions.

British authorities have come under fire for using computer models that critics say have overestimated the amount of ash in the skies over Europe that could cripple jet engines. Nevertheless, Britain issued a new warning Tuesday that fresh and intensifying eruptions were sending more volcanic plumes into European airspace.

Although airports in Scotland reopened, the warnings raised doubt about the lifting of restrictions in the London area, including at Heathrow. Some nations, including Poland, reopened a number of airports on Monday but closed them again on Tuesday.

It remained uncertain how and whether the new ash clouds would impact plans to begin lifting restrictions across continental Europe. The Eurocontrol air traffic agency in Brussels said Tuesday that it expected as many as 60 percent of regularly scheduled flights to operate. But decisions were being made on a nation-by-nation basis as authorities continued to reevaluate risk levels and ensure passenger safety amid the clamor to end the restrictions.

The flurry of activity came as disputes between airlines and civil aviation authorities continued, with carriers that have lost more than $1 billion from the bans blaming overly cautious officials for grounding too many flights. The situation left millions of stranded passengers facing questions about just how safe the skies over Europe really were.

"The volcano eruption in Iceland has strengthened, and a new ash cloud is spreading south and east towards the UK," Britain's National Air Traffic Service said in a statement. "This demonstrates the dynamic and rapidly changing conditions in which we are working."

Earlier, the Associated Press reported from Paris:

Applause, cheers and whoops of joy rang out from Asia to New York to Paris on Tuesday as airplanes gradually took to the skies after five days of being grounded. Only limited flights were allowed to resume.

A Eurocontrol map showing the ash cloud on Tuesday listed only the airspace between Iceland and Britain and Ireland as a no-fly zone, along with much of the Baltic Sea and surrounding area. The ash cloud also spread westward from Iceland, toward Greenland and Canada's eastern coastline.

In many airport hubs that have been cauldrons of anxiety, anger and sleep deprivation, Tuesday marked a day of weary collective relief.

The boards at Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport announcing long-distance flights -- which had been streaked with red "canceled" signs for five days -- filled up with white "on time" signs Tuesday and the first commercial flight out since Thursday left for New York's John F. Kennedy Airport.

"We were in the hotel having breakfast, and we heard an aircraft take off. Everybody got up and applauded," said Bob Basso of San Diego, who has been staying in a hotel near Charles de Gaulle since his flight Friday was canceled.

At New York's JFK, the first flight from Amsterdam in days arrived Monday night.

"Everyone was screaming in the airplane from happiness," said passenger Savvas Toumarides, of Cyprus, who missed his sister's New York wedding after getting stranded in Amsterdam last Thursday. An Associated Press photographer saw one KLM jet taking off from Amsterdam into a colorful sunset, which weather officials said was pinker than normal because of the ash.

Limited flights resumed in Scotland, and Switzerland reopened its entire airspace. Germany's airspace -- including Europe's No. 3 airport at Frankfurt -- was to open starting Tuesday afternoon.

Airports in central Europe and Scandinavia have reopened, and most of southern Europe remained clear, with Spain volunteering to be an emergency hub for overseas travelers trying to get home. Spain piled on extra buses, trains and ferries to handle an expected rush of passengers.

Britain sent navy ships to Spain and France to fetch troops coming home from Afghanistan and passengers who had been stranded by the chaos. Ferries on the continent were so packed that the Viking passenger line between Finland and Sweden opened conference rooms so passengers could sleep on the floor.

"No one's complaining," said ferry official Thomas von Hellens. "They are just happy to get across."

Hopeful hitchhikers took to European roads, and the technology-savvy headed to Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites to find rides home across the continent.

Some flights resumed early Tuesday from Asia to southern Europe. But Asian airports and airlines remained cautious, and most flights to and from Europe remained canceled.

Branigin reported from Washington.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company