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Volcanic ash halts European flights

Air travel around the world was disrupted Thursday as clouds of ash from a volcano in Iceland blew across northern Europe. Scientists warned that the problem could continue.

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Christopher Elliott
Travel expert
Thursday, April 15, 2010; 12:00 PM

A plume of volcanic ash from Iceland has halted flights across Europe as authorities shut down airspace in Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia, stranding hundreds of thousands of passengers. U.S. flights are on hold.

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Christopher Elliott, National Geographic Traveler magazine's reader advocate and Navigator columnist, was online today at Noon ET to take your questions about how your travel plans may be impacted.

A transcript follows.


Springfield, VA: Do you think my Air France flight to Paris tonight at 10:30 will be cancelled?

Christopher Elliott: I would bet so. The conditions are expected to last at least another 48 hours, according to reports. It remains unclear how flights into southern Europe will be affected. I would contact your carrier to find out.


Freaking O, UT: Are there any indications when the volcano will stop erupting? I am flying home to London in late April. If it takes 2 days after eruption to clear the air, but weeks for the eruption to stop, should I reschedule? Or should I just stalk my airline's website for news?

Christopher Elliott: Not to sound alarmist or anything, but I just got a note from Brent Bowen, the head of Purdue University's aviation technology department, who predicts hundreds of thousand of trans-Atlantic passengers are going to see their flights canceled, delayed or diverted. "The short-term impact will be the greatest we have seen since Sept. 11, 2001," he said.

I think he may be right. It's possible that your flight in late April will be affected by this volcano.


Annandale VA: I'm scheduled to fly to Heathrow next Tuesday. Assuming things do clear up, how do the airlines handle all of the backlogged customers? Do they get priority on flights or are they fit into available seats on existing flights?

Christopher Elliott: I would not assume that airlines will rebook delayed passengers on a first-come, first-served basis. Many airlines will give priority to elite-level passengers and first-class/business-class passengers. If you pay more, you get more.


Washington, D.C.: I am flying through Heathrow to Prague next Wednesday/Thursday. Any idea how worried I should be? Thanks.

Christopher Elliott: It's difficult to say. You're waiting for a "Green Alert" from the International Airways Volcano Watch (IAVW), which means the skies are free of volcanic contaminants. Since the volcano is still erupting -- at least according to the latest reports -- we'll have to wait and see.


London-bound tomorrow: I've got a flight out of IAD tomorrow night to London, what are the chances I'll make it out? My airline's website (Virgin) only shows cancellations for today, so far.

Christopher Elliott: It's difficult to say. The predictions are that this will last another 48 hours, so I would go with a cancellation if I were a bettin' man.


Bethesda, MD.: I was stunned when I heard this. Please forgive my ignorance, but has this ever happened before? How thick is this volcanic ash? Is it headed only towards Europe?

Christopher Elliott: Yes, Iceland is known for its volcanoes. In fact, it reportedly had one just a few weeks ago (that would be the FimmvörðuhÁls eruption, which is said to have begun March 20 and ended April 12). The difference is that this one is kicking up a lot of ash high into the air, where it can affect aircraft. It doesn't take a lot to harm a plane.

Volcanic ash can damage aircraft engines, and in one notable case almost led to a crash. A Boeing 747 caught in the aftermath of the Galunggung volcano in Indonesia in 1982 lost thrust from all four engines and descended from 36,000 feet to 12,500 feet before all four engines were restarted, according to the aircraft manufacturer. The airplane, on a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Perth, Australia, diverted to Jakarta and landed safely despite major engine damage. This airplane subsequently had all four engines replaced before returning to service.


How long before ash dissipates: And airline travel resumes "normal" activity? What is general thought re: this coming weekend travel to/from Europe?

Christopher Elliott: If you're flying to Europe this weekend, may I suggest picking up a copy of EU Regulation 261/2004. Read the rule carefully, as opposed to letting an airline employee interpret it for you.

The rule, which outlines your rights as a passenger, applies to any flight within the EU and to the EU, so if, for example, you re flying from Washington to London today, this applies to your flight.

Another tip: Check your airline's contract of carriage, or conditions of carriage -- the legal agreement between you and the airline. It's available through your airline's Web site. Here's British Airways', for example.


Alexandria, VA: I'm sure there will be short term impacts, but my bet is that if this eruption will go on for a significant amount of time, there are people that need to get somewhere and will pay for it and eventually it will be worth the airlines while to create routes that take the "long way around".

Christopher Elliott: That makes sense. I think getting in and out of Europe could become a huge problem if the plume spreads and the eruption doesn't end. We'll all have to ride the train -- which probably wouldn't be such a bad thing.


Chicago, IL: What do you expect Frankfurt's status will be for the next 36 hours? Thanks.

Christopher Elliott: Frankfurt seems to still be up and running, with cancellations reported to the UK and northern European destinations. I don't know how much longer it will remain open. It really depends on the volcano -- and the weather.


Oakton, Va.: I'm driving from Washington DC to New York on Sunday. Will I be affected?

Christopher Elliott: No. The volcano is in Iceland, and it's only affecting flights in the UK and northern Europe, for now.


Prevailing winds: Don't know much about atmospheric conditions but is there any chance that this eruption (or future eruptions) would disrupt domestic (US) air travel?

Christopher Elliott: Good question. So far, I haven't heard of any possible cancellations stateside, but we're monitoring the situation. If this becomes a Krakatoa-level natural disaster, then of course, all bets are off.


Check your contract: Good advice on checking contracts/regulations. Air travel is so common nowadays and we all just buy our tickets and sign our credit card receipts that we forget about the "legalese" and the contract involved. Lots of "Acts of God" exclusions, etc. Traveler beware, traveler be prepared!

Christopher Elliott: Thank you. And just to underscore, it's better to read the contract and the rule yourself and tell the airline what you'd like it to do, as opposed to letting it interpret the rule for you. Chances are, it will interpret EU laws in a way that favors it.


Philadelphia, Pa.: How bad is this ash at ground level? Is it bad enough to affect any ground transportation?

Christopher Elliott: I have not heard of this volcano affecting ground transportation anywhere. I'll let you know if that changes.


Read the Other Posts People: Seriously, how many people are going to ask if their flight to Europe is going to be impacted? Uh, Chris has already said "yes" like 20 times. Yeesh.

Of course what I want to know is will my flight to London today be canceled?

Christopher Elliott: Probably. Check with your airline or travel agent. But you know, this could all blow over and we could be back to business tomorrow. You just never know.


Pittsburgh: How far south in Europe is the volcanic ash forecast to spread, in terms of being severe enough for flights to be cancelled, and how soon might it arrive? I have a friend who's flying home from the Azores on Friday, and another couple who just arrived and will be returning to the US in three weeks, so I'm curious.

Christopher Elliott: So far, this is only affecting flight in northern Europe and the UK, but if the winds shift and/or the volcano continues to emit ash, it could cancel flights farther south. We'll just have to wait and see. Something tells me your friend might be fine flying home from the Azores.


Arlington, VA: "I'm driving from Washington DC to New York on Sunday. Will I be affected?"

I hope that's a joke and our common sense factor hasn't fallen that low. If nothing else all you have to know is that the jet stream moves from west to east, so if you built a gigantic bonfire in the middle of the Atlantic the smoke is going to head towards Europe, not New York...

Christopher Elliott: I think it was a joke, too. I certainly hope it was.


Annapolis, MD: Newark to Lisbon, Portugal via TAP on the Sunday red-eye. What are the chances of it affecting travel that far south?

Christopher Elliott: You might be OK -- but again, check with your travel agent and airline.


Alexandria VA: Could you clarify your response to Annandale for me: do you expect that to accommodate high-level elite customers the airlines will actually take seats away from non-elite, or low-level elite, passengers who now hold those seats for scheduled flights in the near future?

Christopher Elliott: It is unusual for an elite passenger to bump a non-elite passenger with a confirmed seat reservation, but I have heard of it happening. If it did, then the non-elite would be entitled to compensation under EU rules and the airline's contract of carriage.

Well, that's all we have time for today. Safe travels, everyone. And stay away from the volcanoes.


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