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Volcano ash hits European flights again

European air traffic faced growing disruption on Saturday as an ash cloud from an Iceland volcano threatened to close airports as far east as Spain's Barcelona or Marseille in France, controllers warned.
AFP | By HT Correspondent, Brussels
UPDATED ON MAY 08, 2010 06:51 PM IST

European air traffic faced growing disruption on Saturday as an ash cloud from an Iceland volcano threatened to close airports as far east as Spain's Barcelona or Marseille in France, controllers warned.

"During the day, the area affected by volcanic ash is expected to extend from Iceland, south to Portugal and possibly as far east as Barcelona and Marseille," European air traffic control monitors Eurocontrol said in a statement.

"Ash eruptions are ongoing and the area of potential ash contamination is expanding," it stressed.

Transatlantic flights, being re-routed around the area owing to different concentrations of ash particles and predicted engine tolerance levels at different altitudes, were already experiencing "substantial delays," Brussels-based Eurocontrol warned.

Approximately 25,000 flights were expected to cross the skies on Saturday, well down from more than 30,000 on Friday.

"The reduction of available airspace is also impacting flights arriving in or departing from the Iberian peninsula and delays could be expected," it underlined of the skies most at risk off Portugal and Spain.

Spain's airport and air traffic authority Aena said that 15 airports in northern Spain would remain closed until at least 6:00 pm (1600 GMT) on Saturday because of the ash cloud.

Transport Minister Jose Blanco later warned that airports in the northeast, including the key hub of Barcelona, were likely to follow from 1200 GMT.

Others affected would include Gerona, Tarragon and Reus, he told journalists, adding that some 20 airports in all could be closed until midnight GMT.

In Portugal 104 flights serving Lisbon, Oporto and Faro were cancelled Saturday, hitting mainly low-cost airlines, airport officials and websites said.

Portuguese air traffic control said restrictions would be lifted gradually from 1200 GMT.

In France the national weather service said the ash cloud would be covering the southern part of the country by late Saturday, with concentrations rising to 6,000 metres (20,000 feet).

Meteo France official Roxane Desire could not predict if the ash would disperse before Wednesday's opening of the Cannes film festival, when private jets in particular throng Riviera airports.

Marseille airport, the main French hub for low-cost carrier Ryanair, said all that company's flights from 1400 GMT had been cancelled, plus two services to Lisbon, making a total of 15 flights.

In Iceland itself some 60 inhabitants of the zone around the Eyjafjoell volcano have left the area voluntarily following the fresh eruptions, a civil protection agency official said Saturday.

"There is a lot of ash falling and the community is affected," Gudrun Johannesdottir told AFP, adding that while authorities were monitoring the situation closely, no evacuation had been ordered.

"The Red Cross opened centres for people needing assistance. Those leaving (the area) have to report to the Red Cross," she said.

The Eyjafjoell volcano began fresh and intensive ash eruptions overnight Thursday and caused Ireland and the Faroe Islands to shut their airspace for a time.

Bjoern Oddsson, a geologist at the University of Iceland, said the smoke plume over the volcano had risen to seven kilometres (4.5 miles) Saturday and was bearing southeast.

"The volcanic activity is similar to what it was yesterday and hasn't increased, even though it might seem like that to the people living in the area affected by ash fall," he said.

The volcano began erupting on April 14 and caused travel chaos, with airspaces closed over several European nations for a week because of fears that aircraft engines would be damaged with fatal consequences.

It was the biggest aerial shutdown in Europe since World War II, with more than 100,000 flights cancelled and eight million passengers affected. The airline industry said it lost some 2.5 billion euros.

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