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Ash clouds close most European airports stranding thousands

world Updated: Apr 16, 2010 16:53 IST
H S Rao
H S Rao
PTI
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Ash clouds from Icelandic volcano continued to hang over European skies shutting down major airport hubs like Frankfurt, London and Paris for the second day disrupting travel plans of politicians including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, royals and tourists.

Singh and his entourage flying back home from Brazil also became a casualty of the flying ash disaster as the plane had to be re-routed via Johannesburg in South Africa as the Frankfurt Airport was closed to air traffic.

So thick was the ash drifting that airport officials said that they did not know when the skies over aviations most congested airspace in Europe could be safe again. The ash clouds disrupted hundreds of flights, stranded thousands of travellers and wrecked travel plans of countless others.

Almost all trans-atlantic flights were affected as also flights between Asia and Europe. Most of the London and European bound flights of Air India, Jet Airways and Kingfisher were running indefinitely late, as also flights to US and Canada, which fly through Europe.

Britain extended a ban on all non-emergency flights over its airspace till 1800 hrs GMT and flights at Frankfurt Airport, the biggest in Germany were halted indefinitely.

France also shut down as many as twenty-four airports. Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Poland, Lithuania and Belgium also closed their airspace.

This was the biggest flight disruption since the 9/11 terrorists attacks and thousands of passengers were marooned at airports in Europe.

A spokesman for Eurocontrol Air Traffic Service said half of the trans-atlantic flights were cancelled. London's Heathrow Airport, one of the busiest in the world catering to 1200 flights a day appeared to be a bustling market place with travellers glued to electronic departure boards on which all flights were listed as cancelled.

Behind the travellers woes, is a volcano beneath Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull glacier which began erupting on Wednesday for second time in less than a month spewing smoke and steam miles into the air.

TV footage showed spectacular images of lava melting the thick ice, sending black smoke into the air and cascades of water down the steep slopes of the volcano. Hundreds of people round the volcano have fled their homes.

The ash plume from the volcano is hanging between 6000 and 11,000 metres where it could suck into aircraft engines causing them to shut down. The black smoke has also reduced visibility to almost zero.

Britain's Air Traffic Service said that it was closing the air traffic till 7 pm local time Friday, but some air travel in Northern Ireland and the Western Isles of Scotland to and from Glasgow and Prestwick may be allowed, it said.

A spokesman at Heathrow, Europe's busiest airport, said 840 out of 1,250 flights yesterday were affected, disrupting about 180,000 passengers.

More than 120,000 other passengers were affected at Gatwick, Stansted and Glasgow airports.

An Air Transport Association of America spokesman said its member carriers had halted more than 100 flights between the US and Britain yesterday.

The NATS said "The situation cannot be said to be improving with any certainty, as the forecast affected area appears to be closing in from east to west".

The ash cloud turned northern Europe into a no-fly zone yesterday and left hundreds of thousands of air passengers stranded.

A leading volcano expert said the ash could present intermittent problems to air traffic for six months, if the eruption continued.

The financial impact on airlines could be significant, a consultant said.

The ash clouds even disrupted flights as far away as China, Japan and Australia where air traffic controllers said all flights to Europe were delayed indefinitely.

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