‘No end in sight’ for volcano ash


The Icelandic volcano which has brought travel chaos to Europe is showing no signs of abating, scientists have said, raising the prospects of further days of flight bans across the continent and more misery for air travellers.

The Eyjafjallajokull volcano began erupting on Wednesday, sending ash several kilometres into the air, and generating a plume of particles that has spread across much of Europe grounding thousands of aircraft
At the same time meteorologists have said the weather patterns blowing the massive plume of ash towards Europe will continue for at least two days and could go on until the middle of the week.”The activity has been quite vigorous…, causing the eruption column to grow,” he told the Associated Press.

Slow dispersal

“Currently the UK and much of Europe is under the influence of high pressure, which means winds are relatively light and the dispersal of the cloud is slow,” said Graeme Leitch, a meteorologist at Britain’s National Weather Service.

“We don’t expect a great deal of change over the next few days.”

Scientists say that because the volcano is situated below a glacier, the magma is being cooled quickly, causing explosions and plumes of fine grit ejected high into the atmosphere.

Together the combination of the eruption, the clouds of ejected ash and the prevailing weather conditions have brought European air travel grinding to a halt.

Aviation experts say that the tiny particles of rock and glass spewed out by the volcano – while almost invisible to the naked eye – pose a serious threat to aircraft jet engines and could cause a catastrophic failure.

As a result, countries across Europe have shut down all or part of their airspace, grounding tens of thousands of flights and stranding millions of passengers – both in Europe, and even as far afield as New Zealand and California.

On Saturday some 17,000 flights across Europe were cancelled – a normal Saturday would have seen around 22,000 flights.

Shutdown

Among the latest developments, authorities in the UK, Germany and Ireland announced that the suspension on flights would be extended until at least 1200GMT on Sunday.

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France meanwhile has said that all three main airports in the Paris area and several others across the north of the country would be closed until at least 0600GMT on Monday.

Italy has also closed its airspace in the north of the country until at least 0600GMT on Monday while Poland said it was shutting its airspace “until further notice”.

The closure of Poland’s airspace and the broader travel disruption has stopped world leaders from flying to the southern Polish city of Krakow for Sunday’s funeral of the country’s late president Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria.

The Kaczynski couple were among 96 people, most of them senior Polish government figures, killed in a plane crash in Russia on April 10 on their way to a World War II memorial service.

Authorities have permitted some low-level flights in the south of Poland, however, which is how the Polish Air Force will be able to ferry the Kaczynski’s coffins from Warsaw to Krakow aboard a propeller-powered military cargo plane.

With the prospect of further days of travel chaos, airlines and aviation officials have begun to look at ways to dodge the threat posed by the ash plume.

In Germany, some low-level flights have been cleared under so-called visual flight rules, under which pilots do not rely on their instruments.

On Saturday German carrier Lufthansa, Europe’s largest airline, took advantage of those regulations to fly 10 empty planes from Munich into Frankfurt flying at a maximum height of 3,000 metres – less than a third of a jet’s usual cruising height – and in close coordination with air traffic control.
Dutch airline KLM has also said it plans to carry out a test flight from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport to Dusseldorf, flying at 3,000 meters or lower, and is hoping for approval to carry out more low-altitude flights if the ash problem continues.The airline said the move was to have the aircraft in the right place when the restrictions are finally lifted.

Switzerland meanwhile has taken the opposite tack, saying it is looking at allowing flights to travel through Swiss air space as long as the aircraft stick to a height of at least 11,000 meters or above.

As the grounding continues the airline industry, still reeling from the impact of the global financial crisis, is facing daily losses of at least $200m the International Air Transport Association has said.

And with little sign of when the ash will clear, some airlines have said they may have to consider job lay-offs and other measures to deal with the financial impact.