Test flight success offers hope for an end to travel delays

A sprawling cloud of volcanic ash paralysed air travel across much of Europe for a fourth day on Sunday, but test flights with empty airliners showed no sign of damage and offered some hope of respite.

British transport minister Andrew Adonis said European Union transport ministers would examine the results of the test flights on Monday and consider whether air space might be reopened despite ash from an Icelandic volcano.

Volcanic ash is abrasive and can strip off vital aerodynamic surfaces and paralyse an aircraft engine. Aircraft avionics and electronics, as well as windshields, can also be damaged.

British Airways and Irish Aer Lingus highlighted uncertainty over any reopening of air space in the immediate future by cancelling all of their flights for Monday. Dutch airline KLM said inspection of an airliner after a test flight showed no damage to engines or evidence of dangerous ash concentrations. Germany’s Lufthansa also reported problem-free test flights, while Italian and French carriers announced they would fly empty airliners on Sunday.

The Association of Dutch Pilots said it believed, along with sister organisations, that a partial resumption of flights was possible despite the continuing eruption spewing black ash high over Europe.

“The concentration of ash particles in the atmosphere is in all likelihood so little it poses no threat to air transport,” said association chairman Evert van Zwol.