Volcanic cloud brings air travel chaos

By Calvin Palmer

A massive cloud of volcanic ash from an erupting Icelandic volcano grounded air travel in Europe today.

Dozens of flights between the U.S. and Europe were canceled as the cloud of ash from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano forced widespread closures of European airports.

In Britain, all non-emergency flights were grounded until at least 7:00 a.m. tomorrow turning the country into a no-fly zone.

At least 100 U.S. flights had been canceled by this afternoon, according to David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transportation Association, which represents most major U.S. carriers.

Most of the canceled U.S. flights were to the United Kingdom or from there, he said. Some airlines were also canceling flights scheduled for tomorrow, he said.

Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Laura Brown said the agency was working with airlines to reroute flights from the U.S. to Europe around the cloud when possible. Some flights en route were also returned to the U.S. late yesterday and early today or diverted from their intended destination to other Europe airports as closures mounted.

Large clouds of volcanic ash have the potential to stall or shut down jet engines. Ash can also be sucked into the cabin itself, contaminating the passengers’ environment as well as damaging the plane’s electronic systems.

Airports in Britain, Ireland and Nordic countries were closed first. By late this morning France had closed 23 airports, including Paris airports.

In Germany, Berlin’s two airports followed Hamburg’s example and closed down later in the afternoon. Other airports in northern Germany followed suit.

Flight bans in the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark also came into effect this afternoon.

A spokesman for the National Air Traffic Service (NATS) in the UK said: “No one can remember a time before when controlled airspace has been closed in the UK. This is certainly one of the most significant instances of flight restrictions in living memory.

“We certainly do not think we have over-reacted. Safety is our main priority and volcanic ash is a serious threat to aircraft.”

A geophysicist in Iceland warned the chaos caused by ash drifting from the volcano under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier about 75 miles east of Reykjavik could cause trouble for days or weeks.

“It is likely that the production of ash will continue at a comparable level for some days or weeks,” said Einar Kjartansson, a geophysicist at the Icelandic Meteorological Office.  “But where it disrupts travel depends on the weather and how the wind carries the ash.”

Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown said: “The safety of our population is of the highest importance. The suspension of flights is a temporary decision. It will be reviewed at all times.

“But safety is the first and predominant consideration, and if any travelling public are inconvenienced I apologise for that, but it is important that everybody’s safety comes first.”

Authorities in Iceland evacuated 800 residents from around the Eyjafjallajokull glacier as water gushed down the mountainside and rivers rose by up to 10 feet

The Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted for the first time in 200 years on March 20, in a dramatic display that sent fountains of lava spewing into the air.

The first eruption did not trigger any major flooding, as was initially feared, because the active vents were in a mainly ice-free part of the volcano.

But Tuesday’s eruption came from a different vent beneath a 650-ft thick block of ice, unleashing a torrent of glacial meltwater.

[Based on reports by the Associated Press, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and Canadian Business.]

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