Airlines edge slowly back to ‘business as usual’

Airlines edge slowly back to ‘business as usual’

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Europe’s airspace reopened for business as Iceland’s volcano lost its fury Wednesday, leaving passengers scrambling to get home and recriminations flying over the $US1.7 billion cost of the crisis.

Three-quarters of flights scheduled in Europe were on track to fly, said the body coordinating air traffic across the continent, a week after a volcanic eruption in Iceland caused the worst disruption to aviation since World War II.

While experts in Iceland said the Eyjafjjoell volcano had lost most of its intensity, airline bosses were frantically adding up the cost of the crisis which their umbrella body said had cost $US400 million a day at its peak.

All of Europe’s main air hubs were up and running on Wednesday and the Europe-wide coordinating body Eurocontrol said it expected some 21,000 flights to take place in European airspace, against a typical 28,000.

In Europe’s far north, Helsinki in Finland and airspace over the remote Scottish isles of Orkney and Shetland were temporarily reclosed due to still unsafe ash levels.

But Iceland’s other Nordic neighbours Norway, Denmark and Sweden lifted the last of their flight restrictions in a sign the worst of the threat had faded.

Millions had their travel plans affected since governments closed their airspace last Thursday and IATA, the body representing the global airline industry, put the overall cost at $US1.7 billion.

European governments ‘must take their responsibility’ and help the carriers, said IATA chief Giovanni Bisignani.

British Airways chief executive Willie Walsh had branded the ban unnecessary, with the disruption heaping more misery on an airline reeling from a recent strike.

Flights were finally cleared for landing at London’s Heathrow airport on Tuesday night, but BA flew around two dozen long-haul planes back to Britain even before the no-fly zone was lifted.

Some were initially turned away and forced to land at other airports but there were scenes of jubilation on other planes when pilots announced they had been cleared to land at Heathrow, Europe’s busiest airport.

British opposition leader David Cameron – who is challenging Labour leader Gordon Brown for the premiership next month – called for a public inquiry into the ‘muddle and confusion’ in the government’s handling of the crisis.

British Airways said they were hoping to operate all longhaul flights from Heathrow and Gatwick as normal Wednesday.

Wolfgang Mayrhuber, the head of Lufthansa, said his firm expected to operate around 500 flights, a third of its normal service.

Dutch airline KLM expected to resume all inter-continental flights to and from Amsterdam’s Schiphol, and about 70 percent of flights in Europe.

All long-haul passenger services from Paris’ main international hub Charles de Gaulle were operating as scheduled, airport officials said, while Air France said it had flown 40,000 stranded people back home since Tuesday.

Emirates said it was trying to operate as many flights as possible but added that ‘passengers are asked to be patient’.

There was light at the end of the tunnel for Europeans stuck in Asia with airlines such Air China announcing all its Europe flights would be departing.

But Frances Tuke, a spokeswoman for the British travel organisation Abta, warned passengers against getting their hopes up.

‘I know for example that some of our tour operators have decided to cancel their programs going out of the UK in order that they can try to reposition their aircraft and crew,’ she said. ‘It’s a huge logistical operation.’

Passengers trying to catch a flight at Heathrow were still in the dark about when their ordeal would end.

‘It has been impossible to know when our flights would leave so we have been stuck waiting and wondering,’ said Veronique David, 42-year-old French nurse, huddled in a green fleece blanket given to people who spent the night there.

She was hoping to get back to Paris after being stranded in San Francisco since last Thursday with a group that was shunted from hotel to hotel and spent one night wandering around the airport.

‘It has certainly been an unforgettable holiday,’ she said.

In Iceland, the civil protection agency said the volcano had lost nearly 80 per cent of its intensity.

‘Explosive activity has diminished. Ash production has gone down. It’s really insignificant right now,’ said Pall Einarsson, a seismologist from Iceland’s Institute of Earth Sciences.

Einarsson however said the volcano had ‘not gone to sleep’ and that it was impossible to predict when it would stop erupting.

As recriminations flew, a vulcanologist advising the United Nations said European authorities had no choice but to close their airspace for lack of hard facts about aircraft behaviour in volcanic ash.

Closure to air traffic ‘was the only measure that could be taken,’ said Henry Gaudru, president of the European Vulcanological Society.
» Millions watch Iceland volcano online


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