Volcanic ash that’s disrupted air travel in Europe for almost a month is clearing as the eruption in Iceland loses power and winds change course, keeping airports open at the start of one the region’s busiest travel periods.
Particles spewed from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano earlier this week have dispersed and fresh ash is being carried east and north, away from European airspace, according to Helga Ivarsdottir, a meteorologist at the Icelandic Met Office.
“Europe should be able to relax over the weekend, with the exception of the Faroe Islands and Scotland, which have to be on guard,” Ivarsdottir said by telephone yesterday. “Ash released in the past few days is now far south of Iceland and could have an impact on air traffic, but as time passes the cloud gets thinner and is therefore of less concern for airlines.”
Global positioning system data indicates that the eruption is also “slowing a little,” said Rikke Pedersen, manager of the Nordic Volcanological Center at the University of Iceland. Normal traffic levels are expected in Europe today, flight-path coordinator Eurocontrol said, with ash having dissipated at high altitudes and well clear of major routes at lower elevations.
Almost 30 flights were canceled in Spain yesterday, mostly in the Balearic Islands, Madrid-based air traffic controller Aena said, while EasyJet Plc also suffered disruption on flights to the Canary Islands, Madeira and North Africa.
Carriers are operating extra services today to help clear a backlog of passengers. Ryanair Holdings Plc, which cancelled dozens of flights this week, will add a total of 13 trips to the Canaries from London, Dublin, Brussels and Edinburgh. EasyJet is operating an additional return flight from London to Madeira.
Much of continental Europe, including Germany, France, Austria, Sweden and Switzerland, celebrates the Ascension Day holiday today, with many people also taking tomorrow off to engineer a four-day break, boosting demand for air travel. Britons and Italians will still be at work.
Volcanic dust is a threat to planes because the abrasive, silica-based material may clog engines and scar windscreens. Speed sensors, critical in flight, can also be disabled. A shutdown of European airspace last month grounded 100,000 flights and cost carriers $1.7 billion in lost sales, according to the International Air Transport Association.
Pedersen at the Nordic Volcanological Center said that while readings indicate there is now “less pressure in the volcano,” that doesn’t indicate that the major outburst that began on April 14 is finished.
Ash to Lava
“The change is minor and there are absolutely no signs of the eruption coming to an end,” he said. “The eruption seems to be interchangeable, going from ash to lava and then back again. On May 11, the plume reached heights of as much as 6 kilometers (3.7 miles). These are all aspects people should keep in mind when putting together their travel plans.”
John Hammond, a meteorologist at the U.K. Met Office, also said it’s difficult to be sure how wind patterns will develop beyond the next couple of days.
“Once you get toward the weekend you’re pushing the boundaries of prediction,” he said in a phone interview, adding that forecasts “imply at the moment that western parts of Europe are more likely to see ash coming over their skies.”
A map produced by Eurocontrol for midday in mainland Europe showed the ash drifting southeast from the volcano as far as the Faeroes and then swirling a thousand miles due north, beyond the Arctic Circle. An update based on forecasts for midnight shows the cloud shrinking, though extending slightly further south.
Trans-Atlantic flights have been operating on schedule and should continue to do so, the airspace controller said.
The European Aviation Safety Agency may recommend that the region adopts guidelines used by the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority in regulating flights through contaminated airspace.
“The change still has to be approved, but the idea is to significantly reduce the airspace closure,” EASA spokesman Dominique Fouda said by telephone yesterday.
Eurocontrol bases no-fly zones on models from the London Met Office’s Volcanic Ash Advisory Center that estimate dust concentrations based on weather forecasts, whereas the FAA imposes a 120 mile-buffer zone around areas of visible ash.
The proposed changes, which would have to be approved by the European Commission, was detailed on a conference call with airlines, aircraft manufacturers and national aviation authorities on May 11, Fouda said from Cologne, Germany.
“We’re leading talks with the all the experts to look at the volcanic guidance,” Helen Kearns, a transport spokeswoman at the European Commission in Brussels, said by telephone. “It’s too early to say what the outcome will be.”
Aer Lingus Group Plc Chief Executive Officer Christoph Mueller said this week that airspace closures have been excessive and based on inaccurate theoretical projections.
In response, Eurocontrol said the models used to locate areas of ash above engine-tolerance levels were effective and would allow it to scrap a 60-mile buffer area that had previously added to no-fly zones.