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European flights jump as volcanic ash clears and Germany, France reopen airspace

The Eyjafjallajokull volcano in southern Iceland has erupted twice in less than a month, raising concerns that it could trigger a larger and more dangerous eruption at a volatile volcano nearby.

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By Edward Cody and Karla Adam
Thursday, April 22, 2010

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.

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With continuing concern over volcanic ash that has caused chaos for the past week, however, 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 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.

Frustrated travelers have descended on European train stations in recent days, only to find international rail routes booked. Ticket agents in Berlin said all westbound trains were full Wednesday, with the few seats remaining for Thursday going fast.

Many people abandoned hope of using their plane tickets, or of recovering the value, despite the announcements that airports were reopening. Some of those crowding trains and 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 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 said at a Berlin news conference.

Adding to the frustration, some airlines resuming flights were giving priority to ticket-holders with current reservations, leaving in the lurch those whose previous flights were canceled. Airline specialists predicted that it would be days, if not weeks, before 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 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 were expected to take off.

The British government lifted its ban on flights through most British airspace Tuesday night.

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

Special correspondent Adam reported from London.

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