Aviation authorities began trying to implement a plan to ease six days of severe restrictions on aviation traffic around Europe on Tuesday, but a new ash cloud spreading south from the erupting volcano in Iceland threatened to undermine the efforts.
The reopening was cautious, patchy and unpredictable, underscoring the piecemeal nature of the European response to the unparalleled disruption that has drawn criticism from the airline industry, spread confusion among marooned travellers and stilled many of Europe’s busiest flight-paths.
The chaos has now lasted twice as long as the closure of American air space after the 9/11 attacks. The Eurocontrol air traffic agency in Brussels said it expected some 55 to 60 per cent of flights over Europe to go ahead on Tuesday, a marked improvement over the last few days.
By midmorning, 10,000 of Europe’s 27,500 daily flights were scheduled to go, the agency said.
In disparate ways, European governments sought to ease the inconvenience — and mounting cost — for passengers stranded in far-flung destinations.
The French consulate in Hong Kong urged French residents to open up their homes to stranded compatriots. With an estimated 150,000 citizens stranded abroad, Britain’s Royal Navy sent a warship to Spain to pick up troops returning from Afghanistan with a handful of civilians.
Several airports in southern Europe — notably Madrid, Athens and Rome — continued to serve as impromptu hubs for the rest of the continent on Tuesday, but the new uncertainty over weather conditions was confounding plans for any quick return to normalcy.
The agreement on a plan by the transport ministers came only after a barrage of criticism that the European Union had failed a fresh test of leadership.
The region is grappling with a new blow to its ability to act decisively during an emergency. Most noisily, the head of the International Air Transport Association said before the announcement to partially lift the aviation ban that “the decision Europe has made is with no risk assessment, no consultation, no coordination, no leadership.”
Lufthansa said it planned to carry more than 15,000 passengers on some 200 flights, around 11 percent of its normal daily schedule. Airspace over northern Italy slowly reopened with the flights leaving Rome and Milan.
Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau said 30 per cent of scheduled national and international flights would fly from Paris airports.
British authorities said only Scottish airports would offer limited service, largely to the islands off the Scottish coast.
Initially, airport operators further south in Britain had said they hoped to restore some services later in the day. But another eruption of the volcano sent a new ash cloud spreading toward Britain. British Airways said it would not operate any European flights on Tuesday.
Rest of Europe
News reports said Switzerland reopened its airspace, while Poland shut down four airports that had been operating a day earlier.
Hungary introduced a partial flight ban and Ireland said its airspace would be closed at least until midday, Reuters reported.