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Volcanic ash restricts Norway, Sweden

April 22, 2010, Brussels, Belgium - European airports sent thousands of planes into the sky Thursday after a week of unprecedented disruptions.


April 22, 2010
By Carlo PiovanoSlobodan Lekic

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

April 22, 2010, Brussels, Belgium – European airports sent thousands of planes
into the sky Thursday after a week of unprecedented disruptions,
with airlines piling on more flights and bigger planes to try to get
as many people home as possible.

Nearly all of the continent's 28,000 scheduled flights, including
more than 300 trans-Atlantic routes, were going ahead. Every plane
was packed, however, as airlines squeezed in some of the hundreds of
thousands who had been stranded for days among passengers with
regular Thursday tickets.

Airlines said, despite their efforts, there was no quick solution
to cut down the backlog of passengers.

“Quite frankly we don't have an answer to this,'' said David
Henderson, spokesman for the Association of European Airlines.

Shifting winds sent a new plume of volcanic ash over Scandinavia,
forcing some airports to close again. The new airspace restrictions
applied to parts of northern Scotland, southern Norway, Sweden and
Finland, said Kyla Evans, spokeswoman for Eurocontrol, the European
air traffic agency.

Some oil rig workers were trapped Thursday on platforms in the
North Sea because helicopters were grounded.

A week of airspace closures caused by the ash threat to planes
created the worst breakdown in civil aviation in Europe since World
War II. More than 100,000 flights were cancelled and airlines are on
track to lose over $2 billion. The aviation crisis that began with
an April 14 volcanic eruption in Iceland left millions of passengers
in limbo and sparked calls for a wholesale reform of Europe's air
traffic system.

Some travellers got a break. Authorities chartered a luxury
cruise ship _ the Celebrity Eclipse _ to pick up 2,200 tourists in
the northern Spanish port of Bilbao on Thursday and bring them back
to England. A British Royal Navy ship also arrived in Portsmouth,
southern England, carrying 440 troops coming home from Afghanistan
and 280 civilians back from Santander, Spain.

Spain, which was mostly open during the crisis, arranged for more
than 600 special flights to help move an estimated 90,000 stranded
passengers out over the past three days.

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and its partners were expanding capacity
on high-traffic routes from Amsterdam's Schiphol airport in hopes of
decreasing the backlog. The routes included New York, San Francisco,
Atlanta, Sao Paolo, Dubai, Cairo, Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong,
Taipei and Osaka.

In Germany, Frankfurt and Munich airports reported about 90 per
cent of flights operating. Fraport AG, which operates Frankfurt
International Airport, said it would waive parking charges for
planes stuck at Europe's third-busiest airport over the last week.

All of British airspace was open and major airports such as
London's Heathrow – Europe's busiest – were running nearly full
schedules. British Airways said all of its flights from London's
Gatwick and City airports would take off, as well as the “vast
majority'' from Heathrow.

The U.S. Air Force said normal flights resumed at its bases in
Britain, Italy and Germany.

Many trans-Atlantic planes between the United States and Europe
were assigned flight paths above the ash cloud that still hovered
east of Iceland, flying at over 35,000 feet (10,670 metres) high.

Scientists at Iceland's meteorological office said the
Eyjafjallajokull volcano produced very little ash Thursday but
remained quite active, with magma boiling in the crater. The plume
of ash was below 10,000 feet (3 kilometres) and winds were not
expected to take it over 20,000 feet.

Geophysicist Steinunn Jakobsdottir said volcanic ash was expected
to fall south and southwest of the crater in southern Iceland in the
coming days but it would not disrupt air travel between Europe and
North America.

The volcano threw up magma chunks the size of cars and sent
powerful shock waves into the air as an Associated Press reporter,
photographer and television crew flew over it Wednesday in a
helicopter.

In a black crater in the middle of a glacier, red magma thrashed
about, propelling steaming blobs of lava onto the surrounding ice.
Charges of gas – which surge from deep inside the mountain through
the magma and cause tremors 15 miles (25 kilometres) away – exploded
occasionally in a molten rock fireworks show.

The air around the volcano shivered with a constant, menacing
growl. Bolts of lightning shot through the fumes and an eerie glow
pervaded the pit of fire.

In response to the flight disruptions, Eurocontrol  – the
Brussels-based intergovernmental agency comprising 38 nations – was
assembling a team of experts to analyze the lessons of the airspace
closure,

EU spokeswoman Helen Kearns said Thursday the crisis had exposed
serious flaws in the continent-wide air traffic control system.
“Consumers and businesses have paid a high price over the past few
days for a fragmented patchwork of air spaces,'' she said.

The EU has 27 national air traffic control networks, 60 air
traffic centres and hundreds of approach centres and towers. The
airspace is a jigsaw puzzle of more than 650 sectors. French traffic
controllers have gone on strike to protect their lucrative jobs.

In contrast, the U.S. air traffic management system manages twice
the number of EU flights for a similar cost but uses only about 20
control centres.

European governments and civil aviation authorities have defended
their decisions to ground fleets and close the skies – and later to
reopen them – against heated accusations by airline chiefs that the
decisions were based on flawed data or unsubstantiated fears.

The International Air Transport Association has called on the EU
to quickly compensate airlines for lost revenue, much like the U.S.
government did following the 9/11 terror attacks.

IATA also demanded that the EU's strict passenger rights rules – 
which force airlines to pay for hotels and meals for routine flight
delays – be relaxed to reflect the extraordinary nature of the ash
crisis.

Budget airline Ryanair did a surprise U-turn Thursday and agreed
to pay for stranded customers' hotel and food bills after being
faced with huge EU fines if it did not.

Chief executive Michael O'Leary has called the EU travel rights
rules “absurd'' and discriminatory against airlines because ferry,
rail and bus companies only have to pay for the price of a passenger's ticket.