Volcanic Ash Cancels 370 European Flights

About 370 flights to and from Scotland and Northern Ireland were cancelled Tuesday as a cloud of ash from an Icelandic volcano continued to affect air travel. Brian Flynn, head of network operations at Eurocontrol, the European air traffic agency, warned that up to 500 flights could be affected, including in some Scandinavian countries.

In Norway, two daily flights between the mainland and the Arctic islands of Svalbard cancelled until further notice. Occasional flights to and from Iceland and Stavanger in western Norway have also been cancelled. Air Greenland cancelled two daily flights between Greenland and Copenhagen after Greenland airspace partly closed. Air Iceland cancelled flights to and from three destinations in Greenland. In Denmark, authorities said airspace was closed in the northwestern part of the country, while ash caused some delays and cancellations in Copenhagen.

In Edinburgh, meanwhile, several hundred passengers faced either a patient wait or overnight stays in the city. “I’ve been told I’ll get home tomorrow, but who knows,” said Kgeld Westh, an architect from Copenhagen. He was heading to a hotel in Edinburgh after his flight was cancelled. (Toronto Star)

Among the crowds at the airport were soccer fans heading to Dublin for the international match between Scotland and Ireland. “If all else fails we’ll make our way by train and ferry,” said Gary Clark, from Hamilton near Glasgow wearing a kilt and a Scotland shirt. (Toronto Star)

In Ireland, a couple who were due to fly to Edinburgh for a friend’s wedding were told their flight had been cancelled. Anne and Damien Farrell decided on the spot to reclaim the car they’d parked in Dublin Airport’s long-term parking lot, drive the 160 kilometers north to Belfast, and take the ferry to the Scottish port of Stranraer. “Fortunately we have a day of lead-in time before the wedding party gets going, otherwise we’d be up a certain creek without a paddle,” said Damien Farrell, 29. (Toronto Star)

As of mid-day Tuesday, Heathrow airport had not been affected, CBC reporter Nahlah Ayad said in an interview from London. “The good news is that so far, the European transport officials are saying that they don’t expect this to last as long as last time or to be as bad as last time partly because the concentration of the ash itself will be low compared to last time and also experts are saying that the particles in this ash cloud are heavier than last time so they’re falling faster and closer to Iceland than they did last time.” (CBC)

The latest volcanic eruption in Iceland has so far not packed the same punch as last year’s. In April 2010, another volcanic eruption grounded planes across northern Europe for five days, stranding some 10 million travelers. Thousands of flights were grounded and airlines lost millions of dollars after the Eyjafjallajokull volcano blew.

This time, there seems to be a more measured response. While flights have been cancelled in Scotland, airports remain open. And airlines are being given more leeway in deciding whether its safer for their planes to fly.

“We are still looking at a very challenging week for passengers and for the airlines,” Siim Kallas, the European Union transportation commissioner, said in a statement. “Although we are partly dependent on the weather and the pattern of ash dispersion, we do not at this stage anticipate the widespread airspace closures and the prolonged disruption we saw last year.” (New York Times)

Because of what happened last year, British government officials said they are now better prepared to avoid a similar mass grounding of planes. New guidelines can determine which airline fleets are safe enough to fly through low- and medium-density ash clouds, Philip Hammond, Britain’s Transport Secretary told CBC. “Since then, a lot of work’s been done with the engine manufacturers, with the airframe manufactures, airlines, with other regulators around the world who have experience of volcanic ash conditions.” (CBC) The result is that regulators have raised the levels of ash through which they believe aircraft can fly safely.

Mr. Hammond rejected claims by the Irish carrier Ryanair – which did later cancel its flights – that it would have been safe to continue flying in the areas of higher density ash cloud. “We’re quite prepared to talk to airlines about ways in which we can improve the regime on the basis of a properly demonstrated safety case,” he said. “But we’re not going to be bullied by airlines or by anybody else when our primary responsibility is the safety of aircraft in British airspace and passengers leaving British airports.” (BBC)

Ryanair said it had safely made a test flight through ash over Scotland. Ryanair said its 90-minute flight at 41,000 feet showed there was “no visible volcanic ash cloud or evidence on the airframe, wings, or engines.” (BBC) “Exactly as we predicted, we encountered absolutely no problems,” Ryanair’s chief executive Michael O’Leary told the Associated Press. “There’s no cloud over Scotland. There’s no dusting of ash on the airframe or the wings. The airspace over Scotland should never have been restricted in the first place.” (Toronto Star)

But a CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) spokesperson said: “The CAA can confirm that at no time did a Ryanair flight enter the notified area of high contamination ash over Scotland this morning.” (BBC)

The ash cloud caused U.S. President Barack Obama to cut short his visit to Ireland on Monday.

Meanwhile, Barcelona’s soccer team was to travel to London on Tuesday, two days ahead of schedule, for Saturday’s Champions League final against Manchester United. Barcelona is making the trip early to avoid having its Champions League travel plans disrupted for a second consecutive year by volcanic ash.

Icelandic government adviser Professor Magnus Tumi Gudmundsson said the volcanic eruption was slowing down “day by day” and he believed the “worst is over.” (BBC) “We expect it to behave and slowly decline,” Gudmundsson told CNN. “It will, however, last for several more days. The ash does continue to cause huge problems on the ground, but no new ash is coming into the high altitudes.” (CNN)

Grimsvotn lies beneath Iceland’s Vatnajokull glacier, a sheet of ice more than three times the size of the U.S. state of Rhode Island – larger than any on mainland Europe. It is the country’s most active volcano and last erupted in 2004, according to the Icelandic Meteorological Office.

In 1783, a 16.7-mile fissure system form the volcano produced the world’s largest known historical lava flow over a seven-month period, damaging crops and livestock, according to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. A resulting famine resulted in the loss of one-fifth of Iceland’s population, according to the museum.

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