European skies open but airline schedules scrambled

About 75 percent of flights in Europe will operate on Wednesday -- some 21,000 of the 28,000 flights normally scheduled, European air traffic agency Eurocontrol said.

Almost all of European airspace below 20,000 feet was available, with restrictions in some areas such as southern Sweden and Helsinki.

"It is anticipated that these restrictions will gradually be lifted throughout the day," Eurocontrol said in a statement.

Britain, a global air hub as well as a busy destination in its own right, reopened its airspace on Tuesday night, giving a huge boost to travelers and air freight.

British Airways said it would operate all its long-haul flights departing from Heathrow and Gatwick airports on Wednesday, but there would be short-haul cancellations to and from London airports until 1200 GMT (8 a.m. EDT).

Britain's Civil Aviation Authority made clear that scientists and manufacturers had downgraded the risk of flying in areas of relatively low ash concentrations.

"The major barrier to resuming flight has been understanding tolerance levels of aircraft to ash. Manufacturers have now agreed increased tolerance levels in low ash density areas," CAA head Deidre Hutton said.

Air France plans to run all long-haul flights on Wednesday, Poland will reopen its airspace from 0500 GMT, and the Dutch allowed night flights from Tuesday after taking the lead in allowing passenger flights on Monday.

German air traffic control said German airspace would be open by 0900 GMT, a spokesman said. But of 60 flights listed on the Frankfurt airport website on Wednesday, 46 were canceled.

Flights from Beijing and other Chinese cities to European destinations began to return to normal on Wednesday. Air China, the country's main carrier, said on its website its "flights to Europe have been fully restored" from Wednesday.

The airline warned, however, that it would keep in contact with European aviation authorities about weather conditions and could alter flight plans if warranted.

Britain had lagged its European neighbors in downgrading the threat to airplanes from the ash, which can potentially scour and even paralyze jet engines.

In 1982 a British Airways jet lost power in all four engines after flying through an ash cloud above the Indian Ocean.

With aircraft having flown successful test flights for several days, recriminations have started about what took governments so long to give the green light to an airline industry which according to the International Air Travel Association (IATA) lost some $1.7 billion in revenues.

The head of IATA urged governments to examine ways to compensate airlines for their losses and said it would take the airlines industry at least three years to recover.

"It is an extraordinary situation exaggerated with a poor decision-making process by national governments," IATA Director General and CEO Giovanni Bisignani said in a statement.

Despite their losses, airlines did however save around $110 million a day on costs such as fuel, IATA said.

The Association of European Airlines, representing 36 major commercial and freight carriers, criticized Britain on Tuesday for not reopening its skies sooner.

"Other people look to the UK and say 'Why are they still cautious when we are thinking of opening up?,' and of course this can influence judgments," David Henderson, AEA manager of information, told Reuters before Britain lifted its no-fly zone.


The volcano under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier was still erupting, but producing much less ash.

"There is ongoing activity in the volcano and we don't see any signs of it coming to an end. There is less ash production, it is probably the same as yesterday," Icelandic met office official Gudrun Nina Petersen told a news conference.

"The plume is very low, so most of the ash is falling here and keeping itself under 20,000 feet," she said.

An expert from the World Meteorological Organisation said in Geneva that a low pressure weather system moving into Iceland should help clear the ash cloud within days.

For the airline industry, freeing up the flights is a welcome relief. But with aircraft and crew scattered where they were grounded on Thursday, timetables will be wrecked.

"To get back to normal levels of operation from an industry point of view will take weeks," British Airways chief executive Willie Walsh told BBC television.

Steve Ridgway, chief executive of Virgin Atlantic, said: "Whilst the reopening of airspace is good news both for passengers and the industry as a whole, it is likely to take several days to get everyone who has been affected to their destinations."


The progressive reopening, after the European Union agreed on Monday to ease the rules, offered stranded passengers relief after days of frustration.

But for some who have faced epic journeys and huge financial outlay since no-fly zones were imposed on Thursday, the decision came too late.

For Meg Newman, 31, a speech and language therapist, and Harry Speller, 30, both of London, New York was the last leg of a three-month tour through India, Nepal and Malaysia after Speller lost his accounting job.

Each budgeted 3,000 pounds ($4,600) for their travels, and Speller estimates the extended stay in New York will cost at least another 1,500 pounds.

"New York was our five-day treat," Newman said. "We weren't expecting it to be 16 days. Now we haven't got the money."

New York itself is losing about $3 million a day in reduced spending, according to city officials.

The economic impact of the cloud has already hit parts of the supply chain and could potentially dent the fragile recovery from the global recession.

PricewaterhouseCoopers estimated a week of disruption could destroy around 0.025-0.05 percent of annual British GDP, and the same would probably be true of other European countries. But Germany said the impact on its economy would be limited.

Luxury carmaker BMW said it was stopping production at some German plants due to a lack of electronic component deliveries. Nissan Motor Co is halting production on three lines in Japan.



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