Update: Some EU Flights Resume but Travel Chaos Not Over

European airports lurched back to life on Tuesday, but the travel gridlock created by Iceland’s volcanic ash plume was far from over: Officials said it would be weeks before the tens of thousands of stranded travelers can be brought home.

Passengers wept with relief as flights took off from Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport, Amsterdam and elsewhere, while Britain announced its busy airports would reopen later in the day.

The Eurocontrol air traffic agency in Brussels said it expected just under halfof the 27,500 flights over Europe to go ahead Tuesday, a marked improvement over the last few days. The agency predicted close to normal takeoffs by Friday.

“The situation today is much improved,” said Brian Flynn, deputy head of operations at the Brussels-based agency. (The Associated Press)

It was the first day since the April 14 eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull (ay-yah-FHAH-lah-yer-kuhl) volcano – dormant for nearly 200 years – that travelers were given a reason for hope.

Conditions changed fast. Airspace in Germany remained officially closed earlier Tuesday, but about 800 flights were allowed at low altitude.

The first commercial flight out of Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport since last Thursday headed to New York’s JFK airport. Others are scheduled for San Fransisco, Algiers and other faraway destinations.

“We were in the hotel having breakfast and we heard an aircraft take off. Everybody got up and applauded,” said Bob Basso of San Diego, who had been staying in a hotel near Charles de Gaulle airport since his flight Friday was cancelled. (CBC)

Jenny Lynn Choen, waiting at Charles de Gualle to travel to San Francisco had a boarding pass but could hardly believe she was going to fly. “I’m a little afraid,” she said, “I am hopeful that the plane will take off, and that it won’t meet with any volcanic ash.” (The Associated Press)

Rita and Peter Meyer said they had to share a hotel room with two strangers in Singapore while waiting to find a way home. News that they could fly home to Frankfurt airport came as they slept. “Just after midnight – after an hour’s sleep – the phone rang (and they said), ‘Everyone downstairs, get in taxis to the airport,’” Rita Meyer said. (The Associated Press)

But with more than 95,000 flights canceled in the last week alone, airlines faced the enormous task of working through the backlog to get passengers where they wanted to go – a challenge that could take days or even weeks.

Passengers with current tickets were being given priority; those who had been stranded for days were told to either buy a new ticket or take their chances using the old one – a wait that could be days or weeks for the next available seat.

“Once your flight’s canceled, you do go to the back of the queue,” said Laurie Price, director of aviation strategy consultant Mott MacDonald, who was stranded in Halifax, Canada. “It seems intrinsically unfair.” (The Associated Press)

The volcano that prompted the turmoil continued to rumble. Tremors could be heard and felt as far as 15 miles (25 kilometres) from the crater.

“It’s like a shaking in the belly. People in the area are disturbed by this,” said Kristin Vogfjord, a geologist at the Icelandic Met Office. (The Associated Press)

Scientists were worried that the eruption could trigger an even larger eruption at the nearby Katla volcano, which sits on the massive Myrdalsjokull icecap. Its last major eruption was in 1918.

“The activity of one volcano sometimes triggers the next one, and Katla has been active together with Eyjafjallajokull in the past,” said Pall Einarsson, professor of geophysics at the Institute of Earth Sciences at the University of Iceland. (The Associated Press)

Volcano experts say that should such an eruption occur, air travelers might expect more disruptions, depending on prevailing winds. Of Iceland’s eight volcanic eruptions in the last 40 years, only the recent one at Eyjafjallajokull was followed by winds blowing southeast toward northern Europe.

While seismic activity at the volcano had increased, the ash plume appeared to be shrinking – though it wasn’t moving very fast.

Sarah Holland of Britain’s Meteorological office said the plume was being held over Britain by a high pressure system that showed no signs of changing. “The weather patterns are very static at the moment. It’s unusual to have that for such a long period of time,” she said. “Unfortunately, it looks like it’s going to stay that way for the next couple of days, bringing the ash over the U.K.” (The Associated Press)

Early on Tuesday, a Eurocontrol volcanic ash map listed the airspace between Iceland and Britain and Ireland as a no-fly zone, along with much of the Baltic Sea and surrounding area.

Still, planes were allowed to fly above 20,000 feet (7,000 kilometres) in Britain, and Transport Secretary Andrew Adonis said all British airports would reopen at 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT).

Dozens of flights departed and arrived Tuesday at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport as the government announced that flights could now be carried out in darkness using instruments. Airports in Switzerland, central Europe and Scandinavia also reopened, and some flights took off from Asia headed for southern Europe, where air travel was not affected by the crisis. Spain piled on extra buses, trains and ferries to handle an expected rush of passengers.

Polish aviation authorities said they planned to reopen the country’s airspace Wednesday morning.

Air Canada, which had earlier canceled all Tuesday flights to Heathrow from Toronto, expected to resume flights at least partially on Wednesday morning.

Even the U.S. Air Force was grounded. Capt. Alysia Harvey, the spokeswoman for the U.S. Air Force’s 48th Fighter Wing at Lakenheath, said all sorties had been canceled there since last Thursday. Lakenheath is the largest U.S. air base in England, and the only one in Europe that has an F-15 fighter wing. “Flying was canceled because it’s difficult to predict exactly where the cloud is going to be or the effect it will have on the aircraft engines,” she said. (The Associated Press)

The aviation industry – facing losses of more than $1 billion – has sharply criticized European governments’ handling of the disruption that grounded thousands of flights on the continent.

Some carriers were using bigger planes and more flights, while others were hiring buses to help get customers to their destinations.

British Airways, which canceled about 500 flights a day in the past five days, said it was trying to clear its backlog on a case-by-case basis. It said travelers could either rebook online or claim a full refund; it also urged travelers with reservations this week to consider cancelling their trips so that it could maximize space to fly stranded people home.

But British Airway’s attempts to land 12 of the 26 long-haul planes heading to the UK at London Heathrow have been thwarted after the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) vetoed the plan and said no flights would be landing at the airport this evening. The 12 planes were diverted to Newcastle and elsewhere, including Brussels.

“There will continue to be some ‘no fly zones,’ where concentrations of ash are at levels unsafe for flights to take place, but very much smaller than the present restrictions,” CAA said on its website. (CBC)

A CAA spokesman said: “They can’t land in an area where NATS (National Air Traffic Service) is not providing a service.” He added that if planes had not been diverted, the CAA would consider prosecuting BA for breaching air rules. A BA spokeswoman said the company was in discussion with NATS. (BBC)

“Unless things change during the day quite dramatically, it’s currently looking unlikely for Heathrow and Gatwick [airports],” Jonathan Astill, head of airspace management for Britain’s NATS, said earlier.

Transport Secretary Lord Adonis said the safety of the passengers remained the “paramount concern.” The minister, who said he had maintained a constant dialogue with European and UK regulators regarding flights, added: “All decisions being taken by the aviation regulators are intended solely to protect the traveling public, and I will not compromise passenger safety.” He denied the government had sent mixed messages and said the coaches were being organized. “We’re seeking to provide an entry route in for planes coming from outside Europe to an ash-free airport where this new coach facility will be able to get people from their back to Britain,” he said. (BBC)

Meanwhile, the first of three British warships being sent to carry travelers home from Europe arrived in Spain. HMS Albion docked in Santander, a port in northern Spain, on Tuesday morning, and will carry a group of British soldiers and travelers back to the U.K.

A cruise ship was due to leave later in the day to pick about 2,000 British tourists in the northern Spanish port of Bilbao.

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