Passengers face travel chaos as plume from volcano spreads
LONDON - Dense ash from the erupting Icelandic volcano forced the cancellation of hundreds of flights on Tuesday, and threatened hundreds more, as airlines and passengers braced themselves for days of uncertainty and chaos.
Some passengers spent the night at Edinburgh Airport after airlines canceled flights in and out of Scotland.
Britain's Civil Aviation Authority said there was high-density ash in the skies above parts of Scotland by late Tuesday morning, and that it was likely to affect northern England and Northern Ireland in the afternoon.
The Grimsvotn volcano in Iceland began erupting on Saturday, sending clouds of ash as high as 20 km into the air that have then been carried toward the British Isles on the wind. Experts say that particles in the ash could stall jet engines and sandblast planes' windows.
Brian Flynn, head of network operations at European air traffic agency Eurocontrol, said between 200 and 250 flights had already been canceled, and warned that up to 500 flights could be affected.
British Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said there had also been some "modest delays" to flights crossing the Atlantic, as aircraft need to avoid areas of high ash concentration.
He added that there may be more delays later this week. Hammond said the British government's crisis committee would meet later on Tuesday to discuss the issue.
A host of airlines canceled flights to Scotland, including British Airways, EasyJet, Aer Lingus, KLM and Nordic airline SAS.
Eurocontrol said the ash could affect flights in parts of Denmark and southern Scandinavia on Tuesday.
Norway's airport operator said the ash cloud would cause some flight restrictions on its west coast while helicopter supply services to North Sea oil operations from Stavanger and Karmoey airports also faced disruption. Denmark said a small area of its airspace would be closed.
Ironically, Iceland's main international airport, Keflavik, was operating after being closed at the weekend and most of Monday, but several flights to Britain had been canceled.
In Iceland, Hjalmar Bjorgvinsson, superintendent at the national police, said the height of the ash cloud had fallen to about 3 to 6 km from about 10 km on Monday.
However, an official at the Icelandic Meteorological Office said tremors at the volcano were continuing, making it too early to say the eruption was losing power.
The ash cloud forced US President Barack Obama to shorten a visit to Ireland on Monday, and has raised fears of a repeat of the travel chaos in Europe last year when emissions from another of Iceland's volcanoes, Eyjafjalljokull, stranded millions of passengers.
But officials rejected the idea of a general flight ban.
"There won't be any shutdowns," Hammond told BBC radio. "We've moved on to a different way of working, we won't be closing airspace.
"Even though there will be ash present over large parts of the UK for parts of this week that will not stop flying activity."
European authorities were criticized by airlines last year for imposing sweeping airspace closures wherever computerized dispersion models told them ash ought to be present.
Germany, however, told pilots on Tuesday that it would refuse to clear aircraft to fly through the red-coded medium or high zones except in an emergency.
"Germany has been taking a tougher line than most of the other countries," an aviation source familiar with the discussions said.
Reuters contributed to this story.