Ash cloud over Europe deepens travel chaos

By Mark Trevelyan

LONDON (BestGrowthStock) – Europe’s air travel chaos deepened on Saturday as a huge cloud of volcanic ash spread southeast across the continent, halting more than three in four flights and stranding thousands of passengers worldwide.

European aviation agency Eurocontrol said no landings or takeoffs were possible for civilian aircraft in most of northern and central Europe because of the ash spewed out by an Icelandic volcano, which was still erupting.

It expected only 5,000 flights in European airspace, compared with 22,000 on a normal Saturday. On Friday it said there were 10,400 flights compared with the usual 28,000.

“Forecasts suggest that the cloud of volcanic ash will persist and that the impact will continue for at least the next 24 hours,” the agency said in a statement shortly after 5 a.m. EDT (0900 GMT).

The plume that floated through the upper atmosphere, where it could wreak havoc on jet engines and airframes, is costing airlines more than $200 million a day and has thrown travel plans into disarray around the world.

The disruption is the worst since the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, when U.S. airspace was closed for three days and European airlines were forced to halt all transatlantic services.

The volcanic eruption appeared to be easing up on Saturday but could continue for days or even months to come, officials said.

There was no quick end in sight to the travel chaos, which coincided with the end of the busy Easter holiday period in Europe.

France said Paris airports would remain closed until at least Monday morning, and Italy extended a shutdown of its northern airports until then. British Airways, hit by strikes last month that cost it around $70 million, canceled all Sunday’s flights.

Europe’s biggest tour operator, TUI Travel, said it was cancelling all trips until at least 4 a.m. EDT (0800 GMT) on Sunday.

ASIAN, U.S. BACKLOG

Disruption spread to Asia, where dozens of Europe-bound flights were canceled and hotels from Beijing to Singapore strained to accommodate thousands of stranded passengers.

In Singapore, a major transit point for Europe-bound air traffic, 22 flights were canceled early on Saturday, Changi Airport spokesman Ivan Tan told Reuters.

“We don’t know where to stay,” said German citizen Dirk Kronewald. “Singapore hotels are full.”

American Airlines, a unit of AMR Corp, said it was able to operate flights to and from Spain and Italy but had canceled 56 others to and from Europe, the same number as on Friday.

The Air Transport Association of America said more than 80 percent of the usual 337 passenger and cargo flights between the United States and Europe were canceled on Friday.

The U.S. military had to re-route many flights, including those evacuating the wounded from Afghanistan and Iraq, a Pentagon spokesman said.

European finance chiefs scrambled to find a way home from a meeting in the Spanish capital Madrid. The Intercontinental Hotel, where European Central Bank chief Jean-Claude Trichet and many other finance ministers and central bankers were staying, was quoting a price of 4,000 euros ($5,600) for a chauffeur-driven car to Paris.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, diverted to Portugal on Friday when trying to return to Germany from the United States, was due to fly to Rome and drive north by car on the latest stage of her odyssey.

Britain, Denmark and Germany were among the countries to announce their airspace was closed for the whole of Saturday and German carrier Lufthansa said it had no planes in the air anywhere in the world.

“There has never been anything like this,” a spokesman said. Lufthansa later managed to move one empty plane from Munich to Frankfurt, flying at low altitude, and was transferring nine others to prepare for when services restart.

Sajjan Gohel, a security expert with the Asia-Pacific Foundation think tank, was trying to make his way back to Britain from a conference in Bosnia.

Having driven 440 miles in a rental car across Croatia, Slovenia and Austria, he had reached Munich, only to find German airspace closed. Airline switchboards were jammed, his phone battery was running low and he had forgotten to bring the charger. “The whole thing is kind of crazy,” he said.

Unless the cloud disrupts flights for weeks, threatening factories’ supply chains, economists do not think it will significantly slow Europe’s shaky recovery from recession or affect second-quarter gross domestic product figures.

“The overall impact should be very limited even if the problem persists for a day or more,” IHS Global Insight chief UK and European economist Howard Archer said.

FINANCIAL IMPACT

Airlines, however, will suffer a severe financial blow if disruption persists. Vulcanologists say the ash could cause problems to air traffic for up to six months if the eruption continues.

The fallout hit airline shares on Friday with Lufthansa, British Airways, Air Berlin, Air France-KLM, Iberia and Ryanair down between 1.4 and 3.0 percent.

KLM canceled all flights in and out of Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport for Saturday. Ireland’s Ryanair, Europe’s biggest low-cost carrier, said it would cancel flights to and from northern European countries until 8 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT) on Monday.

An official at Eurocontrol said the number of transatlantic flights arriving in Europe was only one third to a quarter of the usual number for a Saturday.

The volcano began erupting on Wednesday for the second time in a month from below the Eyjafjallajokull glacier, hurling a plume of ash 6 to 11 km (3.7 to 6.9 miles) into the atmosphere.

By Saturday this had fallen to 5 to 8 km (3 to 5 miles).

“The eruption could go on like that for a long time,” said Bergthora Thorbjarnardottir, a geophysicist at the Meteorological Office. “Every volcano is different and we don’t have much experience with this one — it’s been 200 years since it erupted last.”

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(Reporting by London, Geneva, Dublin, Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, Reykjavik, Washington, Frankfurt and Berlin newsrooms; Writing by Mark Trevelyan; editing by Alison Williams)

Ash cloud over Europe deepens travel chaos