Volcanic Ash Cloud Hits Again in Ireland

Volcanic ash is disrupting air travel once again just as transport ministers are set to gather in Brussels to discuss air traffic management following last month's travel chaos due to ash from the same Icelandic volcano.

A change in wind direction on Monday (3 April) sent the plume from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano over Ireland and the Scottish Isles, prompting the closure of airports.

All flights going in and out of Ireland have been grounded since 8am CET this morning, while airspace over the Outer Hebrides was closed during Monday night. The Irish ban is expected to extend until at least 2pm. [Note: Irish airspace reopened earlier than expected, at 1 pm.]

The ash was expected to exceed the safety level agreed in the wake of the six-day grounding of most European flights in April, a move that disrupted the travel plans of some 10 million passengers and is estimated to have cost the airline industry up to €2.5 billion.

"Ireland falls within the predicted area of ash concentrations that exceed acceptable engine-manufacturer tolerance levels," the Irish Aviation Authority said in a statement.

Iceland's meteorological office said that a recent change of wind direction had sent the ash cloud south and southeast toward Europe, rather than northward. However, the cloud is much smaller than the one that caused the flight paralysis around 20 April.

The fresh disruption comes as EU transport ministers will in a specially-convened meeting on Tuesday discuss an improved response to such incidents amid accusations that governments last month over-reacted.

The European Commission, which is pushing to create a single airspace with European supervisors to co-ordinate flight routes and responses, has noted that a more joined-up response would mean that April's flight disruptions would have lasted for three days rather than six.

The ministers will also discuss demands by airlines for government assistance to help pay for the loss of revenue as well as the costs of refunding tickets or taking care of stranded passengers.

EU passenger rights rules say that airlines have a "duty of care" to passengers and are required to refund expenses for costs incurred due to flight delays if passengers choose to be re-routed rather than having their tickets reimbursed.

However, airlines have been pressuring Brussels for a softening of the rules, arguing that national authorities had taken the decision to close airspaces, meaning it was beyond their control.

The commission, for its part, has indicated that it is open to the idea of some state aid for affected companies, but has remained firm on the rules concerning the rights of passengers.

The commission "considers that the exceptional circumstances of recent days may justify support measures to offset losses incurred," as long as any proposed aid does not distort competition, EU transport commissioner Siim Kallas said last month.

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