Ash-Stranded Travelers Hopeful As Flights Resume

The first flight has landed at London’s Heathrow Airport — Europe’s busiest hub — since airspace across the Continent was closed by ash spewed from a volcano in Iceland.

A flight from Vancouver landed at Heathrow shortly before 10 p.m., the first since flight paths were closed after Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted last Wednesday. British Airways said it hoped about 24 other flights bound from the United States, Africa and Asia would land later Tuesday at Heathrow.

Flights also took to the skies in other parts of Europe on Tuesday. Stranded passengers were overjoyed by the resumption of flights, but just as planes started leaving the ground, fresh ash from Iceland threatened to cause more havoc.

Most long-haul flights were set to resume at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle, which is Europe’s second-largest airport, while airports in many other countries began a “progressive” reopening. Airspace in Germany remained officially closed until 8:00 p.m. local time, but a limited number of flights were allowed in at low altitude.

The Eurocontrol air traffic agency in Brussels, Belgium, said it expects 55 percent to 60 percent of flights over Europe to go ahead Tuesday. By midmorning, 10,000 of Europe’s 27,500 daily flights were scheduled to go.

“The situation today is much improved,” said Brian Flynn, deputy head of operations at the Brussels-based agency.

But the situation isn’t improving fast enough to satisfy the struggling airline industry. The International Air Transport Association estimates that the industry has lost more than $1.5 billion because of the disruption. Aviation experts say the event has been more devastating than the shutdown of U.S. airspace after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. They warn that even if things were to improve quickly, one or more airlines could fail.

Although Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano continues to spew smoke and lava, the ash plume is lower than it previously was, posing less threat to highflying aircraft. A Eurocontrol map released Tuesday showed airspace between Iceland and Britain was still a no-fly zone, along with much of the Baltic Sea and surrounding area. Still, planes were being allowed to fly above 20,000 feet in the United Kingdom.

The continued airport closures and reduced flights mean that tens of thousands of passengers will spend at least another night in limbo. Hundreds of cots were set out at New York’s Kennedy International Airport, and Air Travelers Association President David Stempler said some U.S. hotels were offering cheaper rates as a courtesy to stranded passengers.

More than 95,000 flights have been canceled in the past week alone, and airlines are facing the days-long task of working to get the enormous backlog of passengers to their destinations.

Switzerland reopened its airspace, and airports in central Europe and Scandinavia have resumed operations. Skies over much of southern Europe remained clear, and Spain volunteered to be an emergency hub for overseas travelers trying to get home.

The Royal Navy HMS Albion, an amphibious assault ship, was dispatched to Spain and France to fetch 800 troops coming home from Afghanistan and passengers who had been stranded by the chaos.

Some flights took off from Asia to southern Europe, and planes ferried people to Europe from Cairo, where at least 17,000 people were stranded.

European airspace began closing down last Thursday as the volcanic ash spread across Britain and Scandinavia. The aviation crisis has reverberated around the world — stranding millions of people and costing the airline industry more than $200 million a day.

Iceland’s international airport at Keflavik has remained open throughout the eruption because it is not in the path of the ash plume. Flights have not been interrupted between Iceland and North America.

In Paris, long-haul flights at Charles de Gaulle that had been streaked with red “canceled” signs for five days filled up with white “on time” signs Tuesday, and the first commercial flight out since Thursday left for New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport.

“We were in the hotel having breakfast, and we heard an aircraft take off. Everybody got up and applauded,” said Bob Basso of San Diego, who has been staying in a hotel near Charles de Gaulle since his flight Friday was canceled.

“There’s hope,” said Basso, 81. He and his son had tickets for a flight to Los Angeles later Tuesday.

Still, an international pilots group warned that ash remains a danger and meteorologists say Iceland’s still-erupting volcano isn’t yet ready to rest, promising more choked airspace and flight delays to come.

In Denmark, civil aviation authorities postponed a test flight Tuesday with a propeller-driven ATR 72 to gauge ash concentration, for safety reasons. There is no consensus regarding how much ash is too dangerous, and even quantities of ash too small to be seen by satellite can be dangerous for aircraft, scientists fear.

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