Monday, April 19, 2010

Volcanic ash affects flights for 5th day

Air traffic in Europe continues to be seriously affected by a cloud of ash emanating from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland. Airspace remains closed, or partially closed, in more than 20 countries. However, the knock-on effect has been severe with flights heading to Europe from the U.S and across Asia also being cancelled. Hotels near major airports have been fully booked and rail companies have seen a surge in bookings as airline passengers seek alternative methods of travel.

EU transport ministers are to hold emergency talks by video conference to discuss the crisis which has affected more than 6.8 million passengers so far. EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas said, "We cannot just wait until this ash cloud dissipates." Already many airlines and airports have questioned the restrictions which are costing them in excess of 200 million U.S. dollars per day. Some carriers have even warned European Commission officials in Brussels that there could be airline bankruptcies this week as a result of the flight restrictions.

Lufthansa, which says it is losing 34 million dollars every day from the crisis, said it was "scandalous" for authorities to have imposed the ban on what appeared to be limited information from computer images, rather than actual flights to test safety. Lufthansa, Europe's biggest airline group, KLM and other airlines have conducted more than a dozen flights over the weekend without incident. However the UK's Civil Aviation Authority said the airlines' test flights were of limited use because they carried no scientific probes or research equipment. "They can't collect data and they can't actually tell you whether they flew through ash or not," the CAA said.

More than sixty thousand flights have been cancelled in the last four days and Britain and France have begun to look into the possibility of using naval ships to rescue stranded passengers. The flight ban is not only affecting tourist and business travel. Cargo and freight has also been held up and in some countries there are fears that the flight bans may affect them economically. In Kenya, for example, refrigerated stores at Nairobi airport and on farms are now completely full and fresh flowers and vegetables destined for the European market in danger of perishing.

In Iceland the Meteorological Office said tremors from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano had grown more intense but the column of ash rising from it had eased to around 5 km. Weather patterns are unlikely to dissipate the cloud until later in the week and travel restrictions will probably remain in place for some time. Britain has extended a ban on most flights in its airspace until at least 19:00 local time on Monday [1800 GMT]. British Airways is unlikely to resume a normal service until Thursday at the earliest. Ireland, Germany and the Netherlands are keeping their airspace closed until 12:00 GMT on Monday. Meanwhile, Spain has re-opened its airspace after a brief closure. Officials there have also suggested its airports could be used as an entry platform into Europe. The EU may consider a proposal that passengers from countries like Britain, who are stranded in the US or Asia, would fly into Spain and then continue their journey by train, boat or coach.

It is not only regular passenger travel that has been affected over the last few days. The funeral of Polish president Lech Kaczyński in Kraków on Sunday was to have been attended by 69 presidents, prime ministers, and other heads of states. However, almost half of these, including Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, Stephen Harper and Nicolas Sarkozy were unable to travel to Poland because of the disrupted air traffic. 

While some airlines have suggested the risks have been exaggerated, there has been some evidence to show the dust poses a hazard. On 15 April, five Finnish Air Force F-18 fighter jets on exercise flew into the ash cloud in northern Finland. Volcanic dust was found on the engines of three of the aircraft and a further inspection revealed extensive damage by melted glass deposits inside the combustion chamber of one of the engines. The engines were sent for disassembly and overhaul. As a result all unnecessary military flights were cancelled except for identification flights to enforce sovereign airspace. Meanwhile a BAE Hawk trainer with special equipment to sample the volcanic dust was being flown from the 41st squadron in Kauhava. Royal Air Force flights to Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham were grounded, and the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence considered flying British casualties of the Afghan War to coalition countries.

Stranded passengers have also found themselves in further difficulties due to visa problems. Inside Brussels airport, 200 travellers from Bangladesh were trapped, unable to leave the building without a visa. Passengers from Kolkata headed for London on an Air India flight were diverted to Frankfurt, where they were unable to leave the airport, to be taken to hotels, because they did not have visas for Germany. Meanwhile a group of passengers from the United Kingdom were facing arrest in Delhi over a breach of immigration laws, because they left the airport without visas. However some countries eased visa formalities for affected passengers including Belarus, Serbia, Finland and Russia. The UK Border Agency announced on 17 April that it "would like to reassure travellers who have been unable to leave the UK and whose visas have now expired. We appreciate that this is due to exceptional circumstances beyond your control." Travellers in this situation were advised to retain evidence of travel arrangements that should have taken them from the United Kingdom before their visas expired [Wikipedia].

Despite some airlines calling for a resumption of flights, particularly those based in Europe, others have extended bans on flying to the region. Qantas, the Australian airline, has cancelled all flights to Frankfurt and London until at least midday Wednesday as it continues to wait for confirmation that it is safe to fly over Europe. The airline, which has booked hundreds of passengers into hotels in Australia, Europe and Asia, also warned that even when flights resume, access to Europe and UK airports will be difficult due to the backlog of flights from around the world.

The enormous shroud of fine mineral dust particles thrown up by the volcano now stretches from the Arctic Circle in the north to the French Mediterranean coast in the south, and from Spain into Russia. But some experts have warned the situation could get even worse. Eyjafjallajökull volcano has erupted only twice in the past 1,100 years, once for more than a year. Each time it was followed by the eruption of the neighbouring Katla volcano, which is much larger and could cause even more serious disruption [BBC / Sky / CNNWikipedia].
tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

1 comment:

andy said...

My flight to the US was canceled because of that awful dust cloud. Had to contact my boss about a project so I went to . I recommend using some online tools if you got stuck in this situation too.