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Europe to Phase Out Ban on Flying as Eruptions Ease

Updated on

European airspace will be divided into open, closed and restricted zones as governments seek to restore flights following a volcanic eruption in Iceland that’s costing the industry $300 million a day.

Work is under way to determine which areas of the sky are entirely safe for aircraft, which have ash levels that may permit flying following an assessment by national authorities, and which have densities that make air services “too risky,” European Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas said today.

“From tomorrow morning on, we should see progressively more planes starting to fly,” Kallas said at a press briefing in Brussels. “It’s not a question of reducing safety but having more sophisticated risk analysis.”

About 81,000 flights have been canceled since the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted on April 14, spewing dust that could stop jet engines by melting and congealing in turbines. British Airways Plc, which campaigned with other airlines for restrictions to be lifted after test trips showed no sign of impaired performance, aims to resume operations from London Heathrow airport, Europe’s busiest, from 7 p.m. tomorrow.

European airline stocks tumbled today before paring losses as the European Union moved toward easing the ban. British Airways closed down 1.4 percent, Air France-KLM Group lost 2.9 percent and Germany’s Deutsche Lufthansa AG fell 2.6 percent.

French airspace, which fall under the restricted or “precautionary” zone, will be open tomorrow, subject to ongoing evaluation of the conditions, French Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo said after a cabinet meeting.

Approved Corridors

Still, no more than 20 percent of scheduled flights will operate as services are limited to approved air corridors, and the reopening of airports in Paris will be “gradual and controlled,” he said. Many aircraft are also out of position and carriers have said they’ll concentrate on bringing home stranded passengers before restoring full timetables.

Air France was already planning eight long-haul departures and 22 arrivals at terminals in the south and west of the country that aren’t affected by the ash cloud.

Lufthansa will resume a limited service this evening and 50 long-haul planes will also fly to Frankfurt, Dusseldorf and Munich tomorrow with stranded passengers, spokesman Wolfgang Weber said.

Britain’s National Air Traffic Services said airports in Scotland and northern England will reopen from 7 a.m., with restrictions in southern Britain likely to be removed if conditions continue to improve.

“Volcanic activity in Iceland has eased, with ash no longer being emitted to altitudes that will affect the U.K.,” NATS said in a statement.

Aid Request

Airlines have also asked governments and the European Union for financial payments, British Airways Chief Executive Officer Willie Walsh said in a statement, adding that money was paid after the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the U.S. “and clearly the impact of the current situation is more considerable.”

European Union Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia said restrictions on aid may be eased as the impact of the disruption is discussed by ministers.

About 70 percent of European services remained grounded today as the ash cloud stretched from Moscow almost as far as Canada, according to Brussels-based Eurocontrol, which oversees flight paths in the region and drew up the three-zone strategy.

The shutdown has cost airlines as much as $300 million a day in lost revenue, according to the International Air Transport Association, which says it will take as many as six days for air traffic to get back to normal as the ban ends.

Safe Skies

The European Commission announced the three-zone system after carriers said their own tests showed it was safe to fly.

British Airways, which is losing 20 million pounds ($30 million), said a flight yesterday showed no deterioration in engine performance and produced no odors in the cabin. Flight recorders, structural checks and monitoring by engine maker Rolls-Royce Group Plc also revealed no impact from the dust.

“The analysis we have done so far, alongside that from other airlines’ trial flights, provides fresh evidence that the current blanket restrictions on airspace are unnecessary,” CEO Walsh said before the EU announcement. “Airlines are best positioned to assess all available information and determine what, if any, risk exists to aircraft, crew and passengers.”

Air France-KLM, losing about 35 million euros ($47 million) a day, said a flight from Paris to Toulouse with an Airbus SAS A320 aircraft showed “no anomalies.” Its KLM unit operated 10 test flights over the weekend and concluded that the quality of the atmosphere is “in order.”

Lufthansa, which sent 10 aircraft from Munich to Frankfurt to reposition its fleet on April 17, had been “appealing to the government day and night to get an easing of the ban,” spokesman Andreas Bartels said.

Aircraft Carriers

U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he’s examining the financial impact of the shutdown on airlines and associated companies. Royal Navy aircraft carriers may be used to bring Britons back across the English Channel and people stuck in Asian and the America’s could be flown to Spain and then put on buses, trains and ferries to complete their journey, he said.

“With 313 airports paralyzed, the impact is already worse than 9/11,” Olivier Jankovec, director general at Airports Council International, said in a statement. “While safety remains a non-negotiable priority, it is not incompatible with our legitimate request to reconsider the present restrictions.”

Some airports in northern Europe, including Oslo Gardermoen and Swedish terminals north of Soderhamn, reopened earlier as the ash cloud cleared their skies. Northern Spain was shut.

Fire and Ice

The Eyjafjallajökull eruption began on March 20 with a lava flow on the eastern flank of the volcano, according to the Institute of Earth Sciences at the University of Iceland. After a lull, it resumed early on April 14, directly under the icecap that covers most of the mountain.

The previous eruption of the 1,666-meter (5,466-foot) peak in December 1821 continued until January 1823. The current blast has sent ash to 7 kilometers, according to Gudrun Larsen, a volcanologist at the University of Iceland. The magma had to pierce 200 meters of ice before reaching the air, she said.

“We really don’t know if this eruption is going to last as long as the previous one, but we can’t say it’s not a possibility,” Larsen said by telephone.

Haraldur Eiriksson, a meteorologist at the Icelandic meteorological office, predicts little change in the ash pattern in Europe, at least through April 23.

Not so High

“The forecast hasn’t changed, although the height the volcano is spewing the ash into has decreased from 5 to 6 kilometers to less than 3 kilometers and now it can’t be seen on our radars,” he said.

Volcanic eruptions may continue for months and curtail European air traffic, said Sigrun Hreinsdottir, a geophysicist at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik. “It could erupt, pause for a few weeks, and then possibly erupt again.”

Airlines in the Asia-Pacific region canceled most Europe-bound flights today. Qantas Airways Ltd. axed services to European destinations through tomorrow. The shutdown is costing the Australian carrier as much as A$1.5 million ($1.4 million) a day, according to David Epstein, a spokesman.

Thai Airways International Pcl is losing 100 million baht ($3.1 million) a day from the closure, President Piyasvasti Amranand said in a Bloomberg TV interview today.

Singapore Airlines Ltd., Air China Ltd., Japan Airlines Corp., All Nippon Airways Co., Korean Air Lines Co. and Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. have also canceled some flights to Europe.

UPS, Delta

United Parcel Service Inc., the world’s largest package-delivery firm, began trucking items from Asia through Istanbul and into Europe. The company made a flight from Dubai to Istanbul yesterday, then put those goods on trucks bound for Europe, according to spokesman Norman Black. UPS’s air hub in Cologne, Germany has been closed since April 16.

The U.S.-based Air Transport Association said yesterday that 310 non-stop flights scheduled between the U.S. and Europe, or 92 percent of the total for the day, were canceled.

Delta Air Lines Inc., the world’s largest carrier, scrapped 97 flights yesterday to and from Europe, spokesman Anthony Black said. A further 49 flights have been grounded for today. AMR Corp.’s American Airlines canceled 60 European flights.

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