Ash may upset European flights for several months

Officials say they won’t let it halt all travel again

European transport chief Siim Kallas (inset) and officials from across the EU agreed to unify air-traffic- control networks. European transport chief Siim Kallas (inset) and officials from across the EU agreed to unify air-traffic- control networks.
By Shawn Pogatchnik
Associated Press / May 5, 2010

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DUBLIN — Iceland’s clouds of volcanic ash are menacing European air traffic again, but transport chiefs insisted yesterday that they are learning from last month’s crisis and won’t let the hard-to-measure emissions ground their continent again.

Rising volcanic activity spurred aviation authorities in Ireland, northwest Scotland, and the Faeroe Islands to shut down services yesterday after a two-week hiatus. Their airports reopened several hours later, once the densest ash clouds had passed over their airports and back over the Atlantic.

But soon a new wave of engine-damaging ash was approaching British airspace, forcing Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority to announce that airports in Scotland and Northern Ireland had to cancel all services indefinitely, beginning at 7 this morning.

The British authority said its forecasters had determined that ash in United Kingdom airspace “has increased in density.’’ It said the prevailing winds would probably continue to push the threat southward, “potentially affecting airports in the northwest of England and North Wales’’ — but missing the key European air hubs in London.

Earlier, travelers, and transport chiefs alike said Europe was learning to pinpoint the true nature of the threat versus last month’s better-safe-than-sorry shutdown of air services for nearly a week. Airline and airport authorities branded that response overkill; it grounded 100,000 flights and 10 million passengers and cost the industry billions.

Siim Kallas, European transport commissioner, emphasized that, had last month’s sweeping safeguards been imposed yesterday, “a very large part’’ of Europe would have lost its air links again — and for days, not hours.

Kallas and transport ministers from across the 27-nation European Union agreed yesterday at an emergency meeting in Brussels to press ahead on plans to unify their divided air-traffic-control networks, research new ways to identify and measure radar-invisible ash clouds, and legally define safety standards for specific makes of jet engines and the airline industry as a whole.

“We want to give top priority to those measures which will accelerate the setting up of the single European sky,’’ Kallas said.

But government and aviation officials from Ireland couldn’t attend in person because their airports were shut. They warned that Iceland, some 900 miles to the northwest, could keep spewing untold tons of engine-destroying ash into air space indefinitely and could keep disrupting flights in Ireland, Britain, and Scandinavia this summer.

“There’s no doubt about it, we’re probably facing a summer of uncertainty,’’ said Eamonn Brennan, chief executive of the Irish Aviation Authority, who foresaw the potential for sporadic shutdowns dependent on the whims of prevailing winds.

Too often so far, the ash from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokul volcano has ended up traveling with unseasonal winds straight east or southeast into Europe rather than northeast to the uninhabited Arctic, the typical path in springtime.

Noel Dempsey, Ireland’s transport minister, said yesterday’s closure of Irish airspace “emphasizes the need for a strong European response and action plan to deal with this situation as it continues to evolve.’’

Iceland’s Institute of Earth Sciences said Eyjafjallajokul — which erupted April 13 after a 177-year slumber — has experienced increased seismic activity since Sunday, and its ash plume has risen to nearly 18,000 feet in altitude. The last time it erupted, in 1821, its emissions ebbed and flowed for two years.

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