Europeans unravel travel mess caused by Iceland volcano

More flights resumed Wednesday as more European air space was opened, but officials warned that days of grounded planes because of Iceland's volcano could cost the airline industry more than $1.7 billion.
By Edward Cody and Karla Adam
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 21, 2010; 4:31 PM

BERLIN -- Germany and France joined Britain in reopening their normally busy airspace to passenger flights Wednesday, and the European air control agency estimated that more than three-fourths of the continent's usual air traffic was back in the sky.

With continuing concern over volcanic ash that has caused chaos for the last week, however, the resumed traffic was limited in France, Britain and elsewhere to corridors where specialists said the material that could foul jet engines had dissipated or moved on. As a result, the European travel map was still in a muddle, and airline executives accused government regulators of excessive caution.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of passengers remained backed up in airports with no clear idea of when they might reach their destinations, or when -- even whether -- their tickets might be honored.

Thousands of travelers, frustrated in their efforts to find a flight home, have descended on European train stations in recent days, only to find international rail routes fully booked. Ticket agents in Berlin said all westbound trains were full Wednesday, and the few seats remaining for Thursday were going fast.

Many frustrated travelers abandoned hope of using their plane tickets, or of recovering the value, despite the announcements that airports were reopening. Some of those crowding trains or buses were seeking to reach European destinations. Others, mainly those trying to reach the United States or Asia, were heading for largely unaffected southern European airports, such as those in Spain, in the hope of buying new tickets and boarding transatlantic and transpacific flights.

"I've been on trains for two days," said a bedraggled-looking U.S. businessman trying to get out of Berlin after arriving at the German capital's East Rail Station. "I came all the way from Moscow."

The International Air Transport Association said more than 1 million passengers a day had been unable to travel as planned during the height of the crisis, when nearly a third of the world's airliners were grounded. The lost business cost airlines at least $1.7 billion, IATA chief executive Giovanni Bisignani told a Berlin news conference.

Adding to the frustration of stranded passengers, some airlines resuming flights were giving priority to ticket-holders with current reservations, leaving in the lurch those whose previous flights were canceled because of the volcanic ash. These and other problems led airline specialists to predict that it will be days, if not weeks, before the passenger backlog is handled and air travel returns to normal.

Deutsche Flugsicherung, the German air control agency, said the ash clouds had dissipated enough by Wednesday morning to allow it to reopen all German airports, including the Frankfurt hub. But Lufthansa, the main German airline, estimated that it would operate only about 500 flights, fewer than a third of its normal daily total.

"Our prime concern is security," Lufthansa chief executive Wolfgang Mayrhuber said in a radio interview.

The General Civil Aviation Directorate in France announced that French airports were also reopened, including the busy Charles de Gaulle hub in Paris. All long-haul flights to and from France were back in the air, the directorate said in a statement, and an estimated 75 percent of medium-haul flights -- such as those around Europe -- were expected to take off in the approved air lanes.

London's Heathrow Airport, the busiest in Europe, was a mixed scene, with some passengers jubilant because they were finally about to board an aircraft and others exasperated as they sat gazing forlornly at electronic boards listing dozens of canceled flights. The government lifted its ban on flights through most British airspace Tuesday night.

British Airways, the main British carrier, said it was operating all its long-haul flights from Heathrow and Gatwick. But it warned passengers to check by telephone or on the Internet before going to the airport, indirectly acknowledging that the situation was still far from normal.

Eurocontrol, the Brussels-based European air travel authority, said about 22,500 flights were crisscrossing Europe on Wednesday, a big jump from previous days. But its spokeswoman, Kyla Evans, said that was still way below the normal rate of 28,000 flights a day.

Mayrhuber criticized the method of measuring the danger posed by the volcanic ash, as have IATA's Bisignani and other airline executives. The Lufthansa chief suggested that at least some of the chaos could have been avoided if national air control agencies had made finer distinctions from the beginning about danger zones and other corridors where there was no danger.

Evans, the Eurocontrol spokeswoman, said the Volcanic Ash Advisory Center at the Met Office, Britain's national weather service, supplied data on the ash cloud to Eurocontrol, which in turn passed it on to aviation authorities in individual European countries. The decisions to close or open air space as a result of the data were made on the national level, she added.

Mayrhuber's comments were the latest in a rash of criticism from industry executives complaining that their national authorities overreacted to the ash clouds and failed to coordinate with other European governments in seeking a way to get planes moving again, despite urging from the industry.

"On behalf of the tens of thousands of customers stranded around the globe, we are delighted the authorities have paid heed to the arguments we and the industry have put forward," Willie Walsh, the head of British Airways, said Wednesday in a backhanded criticism that reflected the industry's irritation.

Michael O'Leary, chief executive of the cut-rate Irish line Ryanair, said it made sense to ground flights for the first day or two, when it was unclear how much danger the spewing volcano in Iceland would create. But, in comments to the Associated Press, he said European governments were slow to take stock of the situation over the weekend and kept airplanes out of the air far longer than necessary.

The British government, facing an election next month, has come under fire for maintaining the ban beyond what Walsh and other airline industry executives thought necessary. But it insisted the decision to lift the no-fly order was based only on a judgment that the danger had passed and had nothing to do with political or industry pressure.

"At every stage, decisions were based on the decisions of safety regulators," said British Transport Secretary Andrew Adonis in a television interview. "They have not been based on pressure from airlines, and that is what the public would expect."

Special correspondent Adam reported from London.

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