LONDON // With Europe's airways paralysed for a fourth day, airlines are increasingly questioning whether the blanket ban on flights may be an over-reaction. Although they accept that flying into volcanic ash can clog up jet engines and cause them to fail, the airlines, estimated to be losing $200m a day, say that in this case the cloud may not be thick enough to do so.
Both KLM and Lufthansa embarked on trial flights on Saturday and yesterday, and reported no apparent ill effects to their aircraft. Peter Hartman, chief executive of KLM who was aboard a Boeing 737-800 that flew to the usual maximum cruising altitude of 13km without incident, said they had found "nothing unusual". "If the technical examination confirms this, we then hope to get permission as soon as possible to partially restart our operations," he said.
Test flights were also being conducted over the UK as some aviation experts expressed fears that authorities had been relying too heavily on computer models and not enough on practical tests. Lord Andrew Adonis, Britain's transport minister, said: "Further test flights will take place in the UK to help understand the extent of the impact of the ash cloud. "I wish to establish, as a matter of urgency, whether some safe flight paths can be identified and opened up to flights within the area affected by ash.
"I am in contact with other European transport ministers on this issue and urgent discussions are taking place with European and international regulatory agencies. "We want to be able to resume flights as soon as possible, but safety remains my paramount concern." Lord Adonis admitted that the forecast for flights resuming today was "not encouraging". Brian Flynn, head of operations at Eurocontrol, the body responsible for air traffic movements over the continent, dismissed suggestions that authorities were being over-cautious.
"Any risk of an aircraft penetrating an area that could have volcanic ash in it could have extreme safety consequences," he said. "And with the over-riding objective of protecting the travelling public, these exceptional measures have to be taken." The flight ban also meant that dozens of world leaders were unable to attend the funeral in Kraków yesterday of the Polish president, Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria, who were among 96 people killed in a plane crash in Russia on April 10.