Volcanic Ash Shuts Down Air Traffic in Europe


Arni Saeberg/Bloomberg News
An aerial photo shows smoke rising from the volcano under a glacier in the Eyjafjallajokull region of Iceland on Wednesday. Bottom of Form

LONDON — Civil aviation authorities closed air space and shut down airports in Britain, France, Scandinavia and other parts of Europe on Thursday as a high-altitude cloud of ash drifted south and east from an erupting volcano in Iceland.

Smoke and ash billowed from an erupting volcano by the Eyjafjallajokull glacier on Wednesday near Reykjavík. Iceland.

Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
A picture taken on Thursday and released by Meteosat showing a dark cloud of volcanic ash spreading over Iceland.

The closure was among the most sweeping peacetime restrictions ordered in British airspace. It left airplanes stranded on the tarmac as the rolling cloud — made up of minute particles of silicate that can damage airplane engines — headed from Britain and Scandinavia toward northern Europe. News reports said Denmark and Sweden also had restricted air travel, while Belgium was about to.

“From midday today until at least 6 p.m., there will be no flights permitted in U.K.-controlled airspace other than emergency situations,” Britain’s National Air Traffic Service said in a statementon its Web site. “This has been applied in accordance with international civil aviation policy.”

Matthew Watson, a specialist in the study of volcanic ash clouds from Bristol University in England, said the plume was “likely to end up over Belgium, Germany, the Lowlands — a good portion over Europe” and was unlikely to disperse for 24 hours,” meaning that airports were likely to remain closed longer than initially forecast.

The move effectively grounded all flights in Britain from 11 a.m. local time and affected an estimated 6,000 flights that use British airspace every day, aviation experts said. Oddly, for travelers, the closing was announced under clear blue skies. Experts had said earlier that the ash may not be visible from the ground.

The impact was likely to be among the most severe in many years, cutting trans-Atlantic links and severing air routes across northern Europe.

At Heathrow’s Terminal 4, where flights leave to Houston, New York and Paris, among other destinations, all check-in counters were closed. Arrival and departure boards listed all flights as canceled. News of the impending closing seemed to have reached passengers before the shut-down, though, and the terminal was all but deserted. Airport staff in yellow slickers handed out fliers offering apologies and saying the closure was due to the “volcanic dust cloud from Iceland.”

Passengers were asked to rebook on the Internet or through travel agents but not at the airport. Some of the few passengers at the terminal seemed stoical about their fate.

Jai Purohit, a manager from Leicester, England, who had planned fly to the United States to join his wife on vacation in Florida, said: “It’s very sad. I bought some nice presents for my wife and was looking forward to spending some time with her. She’s naturally upset, but there’s nothing we can do. It’s understandable.”

An American traveler, Anne Evans, who had arrived in London from San Francisco, said she was on the way to take up a voluntary teacher training position in Sri Lanka when she learned from television news that her connecting flight was canceled.

“I’m sort of in limbo,” she said, “They advised me to wait until 7 p.m. There’s nothing you can do. You can either smile or cry, and I decided to smile.”

At Terminal 5, operated by British Airways, long lines formed as passengers looked to rebook connecting flights and seek hotel accommodation until their flights.

The silence of the skies reminded some Britons of the days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when trans-Atlantic flights were suspended. Since then, aviation in Britain has seen huge disruptions caused by terrorism alerts and industrial unrest.

Travelers on British Airways are only just recovering from a series of strikes by cabin staff.

In parts of Scandinavia, too, air travel came to a halt. In Norway, all flights to and from Oslo Airport were canceled as of 10 a.m. local time, the airport said in a statement on its Web site.

In Sweden, the aviation authority has gradually been closing its airspace since morning, though several airports, including Arlanda and Bromma airports in Stockholm, will remain open until 6 p.m. Thursday, said Susanne Rundstrom, a spokeswoman for Swedavia, which operates the country’s 14 airports. She declined to predict how long the closing would last.

“I don’t know if it will be a couple of hours or a couple of days,” Ms. Rundstrom said.

The Finnish aviation authority, Finavia, warned travelers to expect some flight delays and cancellations until at least 3 p.m. on Thursday, though a spokeswoman said all of the country’s airports would remain open for now.

Much attention focused on Britain and particularly London’s Heathrow Airport, one of the world’s busiest.

The British airports operator BAA had earlier warned that all flights out of Heathrow and Stansted airports would probably be suspended starting around noon and strongly advised passengers with tickets for travel on Thursday to stay home.

A spokesman for the Irish Aviation Authority said that “several sections” of Irish airspace, including Dublin, would be closed beginning at noon Thursday and last possibly into the evening. Both Aer Lingus, the country’s flag carrier, and the low-cost airline Ryanair warned of major disruptions across their networks as a result.

Although volcanic ash clouds sometimes limit pilots’ visibility, their most serious safety threat to aircraft is the harm they can cause to engines in flight. In recent decades, more than 90 aircraft have suffered damage from volcanic plumes, according to the International Civil Aviation Authority, an arm of the United Nations.

Volcanic ash is made primarily of silicates, or glass fibers, which, once ingested into a jet engine can melt, causing the engine to flame out and stall.

It was impossible to predict how long the disruptions might last or the extent of the flight cancellations, since the volcano was still erupting, said Deborah Seymour, a spokeswoman for Britain’s National Air Traffic Service.

“We are completely and utterly hostage to weather conditions,” she said.

Brian Flynn, the head of operations at Eurocontrol, which is responsible for European air safety, told the BBC that the cloud of ash could stay in place over northern Europe for at least 12 hours because of “stable winds.” The cloud could spread to northern Germany, he said. The perils of volcanic ash are well known to pilots and airline operators. After the 1982 eruption of Galunggung volcano in Indonesia, for example, a Boeing 747 flying to Perth, Australia, from Malaysia lost power in all four engines and descended from 36,000 feet to 12,500 feet before pilots could restart them and make an emergency landing in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Even before the closing of British airspace was announced, British Airways said on its Web site that it was canceling all domestic flights on Thursday.

The disruptions accelerated rapidly after the first word of closings came from Scottish airports in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Within hours, news reports said some airline operators from the United States, Japan and the United Arab Emirates had already revised schedules for flights to Britain. The volcanic ash was reported to be drifting in band between 18,000 and 33,000 feet above the earth.

Matt Dobson, a forecaster for the Press Association’s weather division, said: “The concern is that as well as the eruption, the jet stream passing through Iceland is passing in a southeasterly direction, which will bring ash to the north of Scotland and Denmark and Norway. But it is impossible to say how much ash will come down.”

In Iceland itself hundreds of people have fled their homes to avoid flooding after the eruption early on Wednesday melted the Eyjafjallajokull glacier. But Icelandic airports remained open because the wind was blowing the ash away.

The eruption, 10 times more powerful than another one nearby last month, showed no sign of abating after more than 24 hours of activity, a University of Iceland volcanologist, Armannn Hoskuldsson, told Reuters.

Hot fumes from the eruption melted vast amounts of ice on the glacier, Iceland’s fifth largest, but flood waters, which had caused damage to roads and bridges on Wednesday, were receding, Mr. Hoskuldsson said. Most of the 700 people who were evacuated from their homes on Wednesday were still huddled at Red Cross emergency centers set up nearby, an official told Reuters.

Arni Saeberg/Bloomberg News
Adrian Dennis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Julia Werdigier reported from London, and Nicola Clark from Paris. Alan Cowell contributed reporting from Paris, and John F. Burns from London.

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