Heathrow opens as Britain backs down on no-fly rule regarding volcanic ash

In Berlin, relatives embrace passengers returning on a flight from Palma de Mallorca.
In Berlin, relatives embrace passengers returning on a flight from Palma de Mallorca. (Gero Breloer/associated Press)
By Anthony Faiola and Karla Adam
Wednesday, April 21, 2010

LONDON -- British authorities scaled back their assessment of the danger volcanic ash poses to jetliners on Tuesday, easing Europe's worst air traffic disruption since World War II but raising the prospect that millions of passengers have been stranded and more than $1 billion in economic activity lost partly because of the overestimated risk.

The British Civil Aviation Authority said new test flights conducted by airlines and reviewed by jet engine makers indicated that commercial airliners could fly safely in low levels of ash -- a position that airline industry officials and some European government authorities have been arguing for days.

Previously, British authorities maintained that virtually any volcanic ash was a threat to aviation. While that position was consistent with international standards, industry officials said civil aviation authorities were being overly cautious. They argued that in recent days ash clouds had cleared enough over Europe for planes to safely navigate around them.

The British announcement came on a day when a majority of airports reopened from London to Amsterdam, after extensive closures caused by the volcanic eruption in Iceland. Most airports were still running with limited schedules, with airlines warning that it could take days, or weeks, to get passengers to their destinations.

The widespread lifting of restrictions came after intense pressure from airlines, which have lost more than $1 billion during the crisis, as well as from influential political leaders alarmed by the growing toll on the European economy.

"I do not believe it was necessary to impose a blanket ban on all U.K. airspace last Thursday," Willie Walsh, British Airways chief executive, told reporters in London. "We will have plenty of time to look back on what could have been done better, and I do believe lessons can be learned from this."

British officials defended their caution.

"We had to ensure, in a situation without precedent, that decisions made were based on a thorough gathering of data and analysis by experts," Britain's Civil Aviation Authority said in a statement.

"The major barrier to resuming flight has been understanding tolerance levels of aircraft to ash," the statement continued. But "manufacturers have now agreed [on] increased tolerance levels in low ash density areas."

With the new assessment of risk, British authorities followed much of the rest of Europe in reopening airports. In London, where the flight ban had been absolute since Thursday, a flight from Vancouver, B.C., landed just before 10 p.m. at Heathrow International. British Airways said it hoped to bring in 24 more flights from the United States, Asia and Africa overnight.

For many air travelers, the debate over safety levels only added to the anxiety of ordeals that have separated families, canceled concerts and major sporting events, and disrupted schools and businesses around the world as passenger traffic bottlenecked. Most, however, were relieved to hear that more and more planes were operating. Although some airports remained closed and others were operating with restrictions, Wednesday looked set to see the most flights land and take off in the region since last week.

William Thue, 84, an electrical engineering consultant from London, had been stranded at the Hilton Washington Dulles Airport Hotel since Thursday.

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