Sunday, April 18, 2010

EU: Half Of Normal Flights May Run Tomorrow

European air traffic could return to about 50 percent of normal levels Monday if weather forecasts confirm that skies over half the continent are emptying of the volcanic ash that has thrown global travel into chaos, the European Union said. The prospects for a return to normal air travel remained far from clear, however.

Several major airlines safely tested the skies with weekend flights that did not carry passengers. Germany temporarily loosened some airspace restrictions before the EU announcement Sunday evening, allowing limited operations from some of its largest airports before closing them again Sunday evening. Other countries enforced closures on their national airspace through late Sunday, Monday or even Tuesday as meteorologists warned that the airborne ash was still unpredictable and potentially dangerous.

The shutdowns imposed after an Icelandic volcano begun erupting Wednesday have stranded millions of travelers. They are costing the aviation industry, already reeling from a punishing economic period, at least $200 million a day, according to the International Air Transport Association.

EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas told reporters in Brussels that "it is clear that this is not sustainable. We cannot just wait until this ash cloud dissipates."

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

France's transport minister, Dominique Bussereau, said there will be a meeting on Monday of European ministers affected by the crisis to coordinate efforts to reopen airspace.

Regulators need to take into account that airlines from Holland to Austria flew successful test flights on Sunday despite official warnings about the dangers of the plume, Lopez Garrido said.

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines said that by midday Sunday it had flown four planes through what it described as a gap in the layer of microscopic dust over Holland and Germany. The ash began spewing from an Icelandic volcano Wednesday and has drifted across most of Europe, shutting down airports as far south and east as Bulgaria.

Air France, Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines also sent up test flights, although most traveled below the altitudes where the ash has been heavily concentrated.

National air safety regulators have the right to close down a country's air space in cases of extreme danger. But they can also grant waivers to airlines to conduct test flights or to ferry empty airliners from one airport to another at lower altitudes not affected by the main ash clouds.

Kyla Evans, spokeswoman for the European air traffic control agency Eurocontrol, said earlier in the day that it was up to national aviation authorities to decide whether to open up their airspace. The agency's role was to coordinate traffic once it was allowed to resume.

KLM said its received permission from Dutch and European aviation authorities for planes of various types to fly the 115-mile (185-km) flight from Duesseldorf in western Germany to Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport at an unspecified normal altitude above 10,000 feet (3,000 meters). They did not encounter the thick though invisible cloud of ash, whose main band has floated from 20,000 to 32,000 feet, the height of most commercial flight paths.

The announcement of successful test flights prompted some airline officials to wonder whether authorities had overreacted to concerns that the tiny particles of volcanic ash could jam up the engines of passenger jets. The possibility that the ash had thinned or dispersed over parts of Europe heightened pressure from airline officials to loosen restrictions.

Meteorologists warned, however, that the situation above Europe remained unstable and constantly changing with the varying winds - and the unpredictability was compounded by the irregular eruptions from the Icelandic volcano spitting more ash into the sky.

KLM's first test flight was Saturday and the airline said it planned to return more planes without passengers to Amsterdam from Duesseldorf on Sunday, planning to bring the total number of flights to 10 by the end of the day. Engineers immediately took the aircraft for inspection as they landed.

Air France said its first test flight Sunday, from Charles de Gaulle airport to Toulouse in southern France, "took place under normal conditions."

It did not say how high the planes had flown.

Germany's Lufthansa flew 10 empty long-haul planes Saturday to Frankfurt from Munich at low altitude, between 3,000 and 8,000 meters (9800 and 26000 feet), under so-called visual flight rules, in which pilots don't have to rely on their instruments, said spokesman Wolfgang Weber.

Eurocontrol; EU Transport Commission; BBC; Sky News; Reuters; AP;

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