Volcanic ash cloud drifts east, flight disruptions get even worse

LONDON — Thick drifts of volcanic ash blanketed parts of rural Iceland on Friday as a vast, invisible plume of grit drifted over Europe, emptying the skies of planes and sending hundreds of thousands in search of hotel rooms, train tickets or rental cars.

Passengers look out from the windows of Krakow airport

Passengers look out from the windows of Krakow airport

LONDON — Thick drifts of volcanic ash blanketed parts of rural Iceland on Friday as a vast, invisible plume of grit drifted over Europe, emptying the skies of planes and sending hundreds of thousands in search of hotel rooms, train tickets or rental cars.

Polish officials worried that the ash cloud could threaten the arrival of world leaders for Sunday’s state funeral for President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria in the southern city of Krakow.

So far, President Barack Obama, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are among those coming and no one has cancelled. Kaczynski’s family insisted Friday they wanted the funeral to go forward as planned but there was no denying the ash cloud was moving south and east.

The air traffic agency Eurocontrol said almost two-thirds of Europe’s flights were cancelled Friday, as air space remained largely closed in Britain and across large chunks of north and central Europe.

“The skies are totally empty over northern Europe,” said Brian Flynn, deputy head of Eurocontrol, adding “there will be some significant disruption of European air traffic tomorrow.”

The agency said about 16,000 of Europe’s usual 28,000 daily flights were cancelled Friday — twice as many as were cancelled a day earlier.

U.S. airlines cancelled 280 of the more than 330 trans-Atlantic flights of a normal day, and about 60 flights between Asia and Europe were cancelled.

The International Air Transport Association said the volcano was costing the industry at least $200 million a day.

Southern Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull (ay-yah-FYAH’-plah-yer-kuh-duhl) glacier began erupting for the second time in a month on Wednesday, sending ash several miles (kilometres) into the air. Winds pushed the plume south and east across Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia and into the heart of Europe.

Gray ash settled in drifts near the glacier, swirling in the air and turning day into night. Authorities told people in the area with respiratory problems to stay indoors, and advised everyone to wear masks and protective goggles outside.

In major European cities, travel chaos reigned. Extra trains were put on in Amsterdam and lines to buy train tickets were so long that the rail company handed out free coffee.

Train operator Eurostar said it was carrying almost 50,000 passengers between London, Paris and Brussels. Thalys, a high-speed venture of the French, Belgian and German rail companies, was allowing passengers to buy tickets even if trains were fully booked.

Ferry operators in Britain received a flurry of bookings from people desperate to cross the English Channel to France, while London taxi company Addison Lee said it had received requests for journeys to cities as far away as Paris, Milan, Amsterdam and Zurich.

The disruptions hit tourists, business travellers and dignitaries alike.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel had to go to Portugal rather than Berlin as she flew home from a U.S. visit. Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg managed to get a flight to Madrid from New York but was still not sure when or how he would get back home.

The military also had to adjust. Five German soldiers wounded in Afghanistan were diverted to Turkey instead of Germany, while U.S. medical evacuations for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are being flown directly from the warfronts to Washington rather than to a care facility in Germany. The U.S. military has also stopped using temporarily closed air bases in the U.K. and Germany.

Aviation experts said it was among the worst disruptions Europe has ever seen.

“We don’t have many volcanoes in Europe,” said David Learmount of Flight International, an aviation publication. “The wind was blowing in the wrong direction.”

In Iceland, torrents of water carried away chunks of ice the size of small houses on Thursday as hot gases melted the glacier over the volcano. Sections of the country’s main ring road were wiped out by the flash floods.

More floods from melting waters are expected as long as the volcano keeps erupting — and in 1821, the same volcano managed to erupt for more than a year.

Small amounts of ash settled in northern Scotland and Norway, but officials said it posed little threat to health.

The ash cloud, drifting between 20,000 to 30,000 feet (6,000 to 9,000 metres) high and invisible from the ground, initially blocked the main air flight path between the U.S. east coast and Europe. On Friday, the cloud’s trajectory was taking it over northern France and Austria and into eastern and central Russia at about 25 mph (40 kph).

Fearing that microscopic particles of highly abrasive ash could endanger passengers by causing aircraft engines to fail, authorities shut down air space over Britain, Ireland, France, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Belgium. That halted flights at Europe’s two busiest airports — Heathrow in London and Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris — as well as dozens of other airports, 25 in France alone.

Air space restrictions were lifted, imposed or extended Friday as the cloud moved.

Italian aviation authorities were closing airspace in northern Italy on Saturday until midday, with airports in Milan and Venice to close.

Germany shut down all of its international airports, including Munich and Frankfurt, Europe’s third-busiest terminal.

Sweden and Norway declared skies in the far north to be safe but kept a lockdown on flights to both capitals — Stockholm and Oslo.

Aviation officials said the air over England would remain closed to flights until at least 1 p.m. (1200 GMT, 8 a.m. EDT) Saturday, and British Airways announced it was cancelling all of its flights to and from London airports late Friday and on Saturday. Airspace restrictions in Scotland and Northern Ireland have been lifted, and Irish aviation authorities reopened airports in Dublin and Cork.

In France, airports in Paris and about 20 other locations in northern France will remain closed until at least midday Saturday.

Belgium extended its flight restrictions until late Saturday morning.

Switzerland, Slovakia, Croatia and Hungary closed their airspace, and Poland expanded its no-fly zone to most of the country, excluding Krakow.

Iceland, a nation of 320,000 people, sits on a large volcanic hot spot in the Atlantic’s mid-oceanic ridge and has a history of devastating eruptions. One of the worst was the 1783 eruption of the Laki volcano, which spewed a toxic cloud over Europe, killing tens of thousands.

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