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Volcanic eruption grounds thousands of fliers across Europe

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Seventeen thousand flights have been canceled today caused by a giant cloud of ash from the volcano eruption in Iceland.

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 17, 2010

LONDON -- With a monstrous cloud of volcanic ash closing down airports from Britain to Finland to Austria on Friday, much of Europe was confronting a bizarre question: What do you do in a world without air travel?

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Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, returning from Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, was managing matters from his iPad in Madrid.

European royals, who had planned to attend the queen of Denmark's 70th birthday party in Copenhagen, sent their apologies.

And tens of thousands of ordinary would-be passengers turned to videoconferencing or made a mad dash for trains and ferries.

Plumes of ash from an Icelandic volcano have spread across 12 nations. As of Friday, 17,000 flights -- more than double the number Thursday -- had been grounded at some of the world's busiest international hubs, including those in Amsterdam, London and Frankfurt, Germany.

Many airports were expected to remain closed at least until Saturday, and officials warned of an unprecedented bottleneck in global air traffic. Scientists, unable to estimate when the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano might end, predicted that it could take hours, days or far longer for European skies to clear of the ash particles that experts say could choke jet engines enough to shut them down.

The paralysis has not caused everyone to cancel plans. Despite widespread airport closures in Poland, authorities there said they would honor the wishes of the late President Lech Kaczynski's family and hold his funeral Sunday. But with meteorologists saying Polish airspace still might contain ash particles then, attendance by a number of world leaders -- including President Obama -- was in doubt.

Many travelers in Europe with no options in the air chose land and sea. London taxi companies reported taking emergency bookings for fares for as far away as Paris, Milan and Amsterdam. Tickets to cross the English Channel by sea or tunnel were sold out.

"You're talking in excess of 1,000 pounds [$1,500]. This is not your average taxi fare," said Alistair Laycock, manager at Addison Lee, Europe's largest cab company. "We have never seen anything like this."

Businesses, meanwhile, fretted about perishables temporarily disappearing from store shelves, particularly because airport closures could be extended.

"Not to state the obvious, but the impact has been absolute," said John O'Connell, director of trade services at the British International Freight Association, a trade organization. "All air freight that would move in and around northern Europe has come to an abrupt halt."

Despite the volcanic cloud's B-movie trappings, its ash remained largely invisible above European capitals. That might not last. Although the ash has hovered at altitudes from 20,000 to 30,000 feet, health authorities in Scotland said Friday that they expected it to begin wafting to the ground by Friday evening, producing a dusty haze and a strong sulfuric smell akin to that of rotten eggs. The ash, officials said, did not pose serious health risks, although they warned people with respiratory conditions to "limit outside activities."


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