Tags: EU | Iceland | Volcano

U.K. Sends Warships to Rescue Stranded Britons

Monday, 19 April 2010 11:03 AM

Britain sent Royal Navy warships on Monday to rescue those stranded across the Channel by the volcanic ash cloud and the aviation industry blasted European officials, claiming there was "no coordination and no leadership" in the crisis that shut down most European airports for a fifth day.

Eurocontrol, the air traffic agency in Brussels, said less than one-third of flights in Europe were taking off Monday — between 8,000 and 9,000 of the continent's 28,000 scheduled flights. Passengers in Asia who had slept on airport floors for days and were running out of money staged protests at airport counters.

All airports were open Monday in Spain and the country volunteered to become the new hub of Europe to get stranded passengers moving again. Infrastructure minister Jose Blanco said Spain could to take in around 100,000 people under the new emergency plan, which focuses on aircraft trying to bring Britons home from Asia, Latin America and North America.

Spain will also beef up train, bus and ferry services to get travelers to their destinations, he said.

European airlines sought financial compensation for a crisis that is costing the industry an estimated $200 million a day. British Airways said it was losing up to 20 million pounds ($30 million) a day and other airlines were also racking up huge losses.

Hundreds of thousands of travelers have been stuck since the volcano under Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull glacier begun erupting Wednesday for the second time in a month.

As pressure mounted from airlines, European civil aviation authorities were holding a conference call Monday about what steps could be taken toward opening airspace.

"It's embarrassing, and a European mess," said Giovanni Bisignani, chief executive of the International Air Transport Association. "It took five days to organize a conference call with the ministers of transport and we are losing $200 million per day (and) 750,000 passengers are stranded all over. Does it make sense?"

In Paris, the IATA expressed its "dissatisfaction with how governments have managed it, with no risk assessment, no consultation, no coordination, and no leadership." The group urged governments to more urgently "focus on how and when we can safely reopen Europe's skies" — such as with more in-depth study of the ash cloud.

With airlines pressing for a restriction to be lifted, a senior Western diplomat said Monday that several NATO F-16 fighters that flew through the ash cloud had suffered engine damage — evidence that the danger from the cloud is very real.

The official declined to provide more details on the military flights, except to say that glasslike deposits were found inside the planes' engines. He spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the information.

Some smaller airports reopened Monday but authorities in Britain, France, Germany, and the Netherlands — home to four of Europe's five largest airports — said their air space was still closed. Britain said it was keeping flight restrictions on through early Tuesday while Italy briefly lifted restrictions in the north then quickly closed down again after conditions worsened Monday.

Eurocontrol said Monday that southern Europe was mostly open for flights — including Portugal, Spain, parts of Italy and France, the Balkans, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey — as were parts of northern Europe like Norway.

Several major airlines safely tested the skies with weekend flights that did not carry passengers. The announcement of successful test flights prompted some airline officials to wonder whether authorities had overreacted to concerns that the microscopic particles of ash could shut down jet engines.

In London, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and assault ship HMS Ocean would be sent across the English Channel. A third ship is being spent to Spain to pick up soldiers trying to get back to Britain after a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

"I expect Ocean to be in the Channel today. I expect the Ark Royal to moving towards the Channel later," Brown said after meeting with the government's emergency committee, known as COBRA.

He said Britain was speaking with Spanish authorities to see whether Britons stranded overseas could be flown there and then taken home by boat or bus.

Brown said the ash cloud had created "the biggest challenge to our aviation transport network for many years."

Tensions boiled over at Incheon International Airport in South Korea, where 30 frustrated passengers blocked a Korean Air ticketing counter and demanded officials arrange travel to anywhere in Europe after hearing about the test flights.

"We need a flight, we need a time," Thierry Loison, who has been stuck at the airport since Friday on the way back to France, told Korean Air officials. "We were like animals this morning."

Transport ministers from Britain, Germany, France and Spain were meeting Monday by videoconference and will later be joined by all 27 EU transport ministers, said French Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau.

"We will try to outline corridors, if we can, based on the evolution of the cloud, to allow the reopening of as large a number of flight paths as possible, as quickly as possible and in good security conditions," Bussereau said.

Diego Lopez Garrido, state secretary for EU affairs for Spain, which holds the rotating EU presidency, said "now it is necessary to adopt a European approach" instead of a patchwork of national closures and openings.

"There is currently no consensus as to what consists an acceptable level of ash in the atmosphere," said Daniel Hoeltgen, a spokesman for the European Aviation Safety Agency. "This is what we are concerned about."

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines said it had flown four planes Sunday through what it described as a gap in the layer of microscopic dust over Holland and Germany. Air France, Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines also sent up test flights, although most traveled below the altitudes where the ash has been heavily concentrated.

Meteorologists warned, however, that the situation above Europe remained unstable and constantly changing with the varying winds — and the unpredictability was compounded by the volcano's continuing eruptions.

Ash and grit from volcanic eruptions can sabotage a plane in many ways: the abrasive ash can sandblast a jet's windshield, block fuel nozzles, contaminate the oil system and electronics and plug the tubes that sense airspeed. But the most immediate danger is to the engines. Melted ash can then congeal on the blades and block the normal flow of air, causing engines to shut down.

Scientists say because this volcano is located below a glacial ice cap, magma is being cooled quickly, causing explosions and plumes of grit that can be catastrophic to plane engines, depending on prevailing winds.

But scientists in Iceland offered some hope Monday that conditions might be easing, saying the new volcanic ash plume is lower, which would pose less of a threat to commercial aircraft in the future.

Geologists saw a red glow at the bottom of the volcano, suggesting the eruption is turning to lava flow, and said there is less ice in the crater, which would reduce the plume.

"We hadn't seen that before," said Kristin Vogfjord, a geologist at the Icelandic weather office.


Keaten reported from Paris. Associated Press writers Slobodan Lekic in Brussels, Arthur Max in Amsterdam, Karl Ritter in Stockholm, Jill Lawless in London, Kelly Olson in Seoul, Angela Charlton in Paris, Toby Sterling and Mike Corder in Amsterdam and Malin Rising in Stockholm contributed to this report.

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Britain sent Royal Navy warships on Monday to rescue those stranded across the Channel by the volcanic ash cloud and the aviation industry blasted European officials, claiming there was no coordination and no leadership in the crisis that shut down most European airports...
Monday, 19 April 2010 11:03 AM
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