LONDON // An enormous ash cloud from a remote Icelandic volcano caused the biggest flight disruption since the 2001 terrorist attacks as it drifted over northern Europe and stranded travellers on six continents. Officials said it could take days for the skies to become safe again in one of aviation's most congested areas. The cloud, floating kilometres above Earth and capable of knocking out jet engines, wrecked travel plans for tens of thousands of people yesterday.
Non-emergency flights in Britain were cancelled and most will stay grounded until at least midday today. Authorities in Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Belgium also closed their air space. France shut down 24 airports, including the main hub of Charles de Gaulle in Paris, Germany's Berlin and Hamburg were shut last night, and several flights out of the US had to double back. Flights from Asia, Africa, South America, Australia and the Middle East to Heathrow and other top European hubs were also put on hold.
Kyla Evans, spokeswoman for air traffic service Eurocontrol, said half of all trans-Atlantic flights were expected to be cancelled today. At London's Heathrow airport, normally one of the world's busiest with more than 1,200 flights and 180,000 travellers a day, passengers stared forlornly at departure boards on which every flight was listed as cancelled. "We made it all the way to takeoff on the plane. They even showed us the safety video," said Sarah Davis, 29, a physiotherapist from Portsmouth in southern England who was hoping to fly to Los Angeles. "I'm upset. I only get so much vacation." Britain's air traffic service said early today it was extending a ban on most air traffic until 7pm local time today, but flights to Scotland and Northern Ireland, and North Atlantic flights to and from Glasgow, Prestwick and Belfast airports may be allowed until 1pm local time. The agency said Britain had not halted all flights in its space in living memory, although many were grounded after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. "People can't remember a time when it has been on this scale," said Patrick Horwood of the air traffic service. "Certainly never involving a volcano." Eurocontrol spokeswoman Evans said the ash had led to the cancellation of about 4,000 flights within Europe today, and that could rise to 6,000 today.
A volcano beneath Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull glacier began erupting yesterday for the second time in less than a month, triggering floods and shooting smoke and steam miles into the air. Video showed spectacular images of hot gases melting the thick ice, sending cascades of water thundering down the steep slopes of the volcano. About 700 people from rural areas near the volcano were evacuated yesterday because of flash flooding, as water carrying icebergs the size of small houses rushed down the mountain. Most evacuees were allowed to return home after the floods subsided, but more flash floods are expected as long as the volcano keeps erupting, said Rognvaldur Olafsson of the Civil Protection Department.
The ash cloud became a menace to air travel as it drifted south and east toward northern Europe - including Britain, about 2,000 kilometres away. The ash plume drifted at between 6,000 metres and 11,000 metres, where it could get sucked into airplane engines and cause them to shut down. The smoke and ash also could affect aircraft visibility.
Several US flights bound for Heathrow, including those from Chicago, San Francisco, Denver, Las Vegas and New York, had to return to their departure cities or land elsewhere when London airports were closed. Canadian airlines also cancelled some Europe-bound flights. In Washington, the Federal Aviation Administration said it was working with airlines to try to reroute some flights around the huge ash cloud, which is hundreds of miles wide.
Australia's Qantas airline said it had some 1,700 passengers grounded today from five flights - about 1,000 passengers stranded in Singapore, and 350 each in Hong Kong and Bangkok. Singapore Airlines cancelled seven flights to Europe. New Zealand's national carrier Air New Zealand warned travellers flying to Europe to defer their plans today, as it cancelled two flights through London and diverted a third to Germany.
Fifteen flights between Hong Kong and Europe were cancelled today and seven were delayed, the southern Chinese territory's Airport Authority said. Hong Kong carrier Cathay Pacific and British Airways cancelled their flights. Malaysia Airlines said that its flights from Kuala Lumpur to Paris, London and Amsterdam today and yesterday were all postponed to Saturday and Sunday respectively, leaving hundreds stranded. A Kuala Lumpur-London flight that took off yesterday was diverted to Frankfurt.
Japan Airlines said it cancelled nine flights to Europe today with 2,300 passengers. All Nippon Airways Co said six flights were cancelled, affecting 1,582 passengers. In Seoul, 12 flights were cancelled, and two flights en route to Europe were forced to turn around. In Britain, the closures curtailed some campaigning for the May 6 national election. Monarchs from Norway and the Netherlands travelling to a 70th birthday celebration for Denmark's Queen Margrethe found their plans up in the air.
The Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt resorted to driving home to Sweden from Brussels. "We'll arrive sometime tomorrow," his spokeswoman Irena Busic said. Eurostar train services to France and Belgium and Channel ferries were packed as travellers sought ways out of Britain. P&O ferries said it had booked a passenger on its Dover-Calais route who was trying to get to Beijing - he hoped to fly from Paris instead of London.
It was unclear whether the ash cloud would affect the arrival of the US president Barack Obama and other world leaders planning to attend the state funeral Sunday of Polish President Lech Kaczynski, who died in a plane crash. Polish authorities banned flights over part of north-western Poland late yesterday, the country's PAP news agency reported. The funeral is to be held in Krakow, in south-eastern Poland.
The Icelandic plume lies above the Atlantic Ocean close to the flight paths for most routes from the US East Coast to Europe, and over northern Europe itself. Meteorologists from the AccuWeather forecasting service in the US said the current ash plume would threaten air travel over Europe through to Sunday at the least. Einar Kjartansson, a geophysicist at the Icelandic Meteorological Office, said the problem might persist for weeks, depending on how much wind carries the ash. Explosive volcanic eruptions inject large amounts of highly abrasive ash - essentially very small rock fragments - into the upper atmosphere, the cruising altitude of most jet airliners. It can cause significant damage to both airframes and engines.
Health protection officials in Britain said some of the ash would fall to ground level overnight - starting in Scotland before moving south - although Britain's weather forecasters said the public should not be concerned. The US Geological Survey said about 100 aircraft has run into volcanic ash from 1983 to 2000. In some cases engines shut down briefly after sucking in volcanic debris, but there have been no fatal incidents.
In 1989, a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines Boeing 747 flew into an ash cloud from Alaska's Redoubt volcano and lost all power, dropping from 7,500 metres to 3,600 metres before the crew could get the engines restarted. The plane landed safely. In another incident in the 1980s, a British Airways 747 flew into a dust cloud and the grit sandblasted the windscreen. The pilot had to stand and look out a side window to land safely. Gideon Ewers, spokesman for the International Federation of Airline Pilots Associations, attributed the extent of the disruption to amount of air traffic in the area where the plume was drifting.
"Normally, these volcanic eruptions affect air travel in areas of thin traffic such as the Aleutian islands in Alaska, or in Indonesia and the Philippines," he said. Ironically, Iceland's Keflavik airport remained open yesterday. Flights to Europe were cancelled but those to North America were operating normally. Iceland, a nation of 320,000 people, sits on a large volcanic hot spot in the Atlantic's mid-oceanic ridge, and has a history of devastating eruptions.