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Monday, April 19, 2010

Anger, Frustration Grow As Travel Crisis Spreads

As air travelers remained stranded Monday across Europe, airlines grounded for fifth day by a volcanic ash cloud said EU officials had made a costly overreaction to the crisis.

At a meeting in Paris, the International Air Transport Association said European transport officials had shown "no coordination and no leadership" during the crisis. Over the weekend, Air France, KLM, Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines carried out test flights without passengers and reported no damage from the ash eruption originating from a volcano in Iceland.

Heard On Morning Edition
April 19, 2010
Airlines Question Flight Ban Due To Volcanic Ash
[3 min 7 sec]

April 19, 2010
Cost Of Canceled European Flights Adding Up
[1 min 50 sec]

"It's embarrassing, and a European mess," IATA CEO Giovanni Bisignani told The Associated Press. "It took five days to organize a conference call with the ministers of transport and we are losing $200 million per day (and) 750,000 passengers are stranded all over. Does it make sense?"

French Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau said at a series of meetings on Monday officials would "try to outline corridors, if we can, based on the evolution of the cloud, to allow the reopening of as large a number of flight paths as possible, as quickly as possible and in good security conditions."

However, a senior Western diplomat told the Associated Press that several NATO F-16 fighters suffered engine damage after flying through the volcanic ash cloud. The official declined to provide more details on the military flights, except to say that glasslike deposits were found inside the planes' engines after they patroled over European airspace.

Some smaller airports reopened Monday but authorities in Britain, France, Germany, and the Netherlands - home to four of Europe's five largest airports - said their airspace was still closed. Britain said it was keeping flight restrictions on through early Tuesday, while Italy briefly lifted restrictions in the north then quickly closed down again after conditions worsened Monday.

Britain's Royal Navy said it was deploying warships to bring its citizens who have been stranded in the continent for the past week back to across the English Channel. For them, returning to Britain by sea is the only option.

European carriers have been the hardest hit, but flights from around the world are routed through major airports on the continent and the crisis was estimated to be costing the global aviation industry at least $200 million per day. IATA officials say the costs are higher than the three-day disruption of air traffic after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

London’s Heathrow was the first major airport to shut down and British Airways said it was losing $30 million a day. The airline said carriers have asked the EU for financial compensation for the closure of airspace, starting last Wednesday.

Officials are concerned that the ash can damage jet engines and could cause commercial jetliners to crash.

Air freight, a mainstay of many "just in time" assembly lines, also has been hammered by the shut down in traffic. Kenya's fresh flower industry is losing $2 million a day and fresh fruit from Africa destined for Europe is reportedly rotting in warehouses. Still economists say Europe's economic recovery should not be derailed unless the disruption lasts for many weeks or months.

The loss of air transport to Europe has also wreaked havoc in countless other ways.

Some U.K. schools may not be able to reopen after spring break because teachers and students are stranded in holiday destinations.

Motorists cannot get their cars fixed because foreign parts can't be shipped in.

Kenya's fresh flower industry is losing $2 million a day and fresh fruit from Africa destined for Europe is rotting in warehouses. Still economists say Europe's economic recovery should not be derailed unless the disruption lasts for many weeks or months.

The airlines are pressing European governments to loosen restrictions, but there is no indication that aviation authorities will immediately comply. Airspace over Paris and the north of France remained closed until Tuesday and British Airways and Lufthansa cancelled all flights on Monday.

Eurocontrol, the air traffic agency in Brussels, said less than one-third of flights in Europe were taking off Monday – between 8,000 and 9,000 of the continent's 28,000 scheduled flights.

About 63,000 flights have been cancelled since Thursday.

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines said it had conducted four successful test flights Sunday through a "gap" in the layer of microscopic dust over Holland and Germany.

Lufthansa flew 10 empty long-haul planes Saturday to Frankfurt from Munich at low altitude, between 10,000 and 26,000 feet, said spokesman Wolfgang Weber.

"We simply checked every single aircraft very carefully after the landing in Frankfurt to see whether there was any damage that could have been caused by volcanic ash," Weber said. "Not the slightest scratch was found on any of the 10 planes."

Scientists say that because the volcano is situated below a glacial ice cap, magma is being cooled quickly, causing explosions and plumes of grit that can be catastrophic to plane engines, depending on prevailing winds.

In 1989, a KLM Boeing 747 that flew through a volcanic ash cloud above Alaska and briefly lost power to all four engines. They were restarted at a lower altitude and the plane landed safely.

-excerpt from NPR

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