x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Planes begin to fill European skies

British airports resumed normal service last night, while others across the continent began at least limited passenger flights.

A pilot gives the thumps up as a plane leaves Belfast City Airport in Northern Ireland yesterday.
A pilot gives the thumps up as a plane leaves Belfast City Airport in Northern Ireland yesterday.

LONDON // The skies over much of Europe slowly started filling with planes again yesterday after five days of a virtual standstill. About half of all regular flights were operating on schedule, according to the Eurocontrol air traffic agency. All British airports were expected to reopen yesterday beginning at 9pm GMT. Germany was to resume regular flights at all airports beginning at midnight yesterday. However, airlines were permitted to operate a limited number of flights from all airports - up to 800 in total yesterday - under so-called visual flight rules. Limited flights were to resume from Paris airports to several international destinations yesterday. The government hoped that 100 per cent of long-haul flights and 60 per cent of medium-haul flights will run today.

Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport remained operational in limited capacity after the Dutch government approved flights only under certain conditions. KLM listed about 40 flights due to arrive or depart. One piece of good news for flights from the Gulf was that airspace over the UK, though closed for take-offs and landings, had reopened yesterday for overflights. The move was aimed at enabling services from the Middle East and North America to fly over the UK at about 10,000 metres-plus, assuming they were heading for a contamination-free airport elsewhere.

In anticipation of being able to land once arriving in the British capital, a dozen British Airways flights - from the US, the UAE, Beijing and Singapore - were heading for London last night.

For several days, European airlines have been complaining about the lack of government action to get planes flying again when their own test flights had shown no damage to engines from the ash.

Meteorologists' inability to track the cloud accurately and the fact that computer projections, rather than physical observations, had been used, have also been condemned by the industry, which estimates losses to airlines at up to US$250 million (Dh918m) a day. European governments' handling of the chaos was characterised as having "no risk assessment, no consultation, no co-ordination, and no leadership" by the International Air Transport Association, the airlines' organisation, on Monday.

Transport ministers from the 27 European Union nations held a teleconference late on Monday - their first discussions as a group since airspace closures began in the early hours of Thursday - and created a three-category map of the cloud, signifying a no-fly area, a limited-service zone and an open-skies area. Siim Kallas, the EU's transport commissioner, yesterday rejected criticism the governments had been slow to act. He told the European Parliament that all decisions were taken in accordance with established rules. Decisions were made on closures, he added, because people's lives were at risk and the matter was not "in the hands of arbitrary decisions".

The Federation of International Airline Pilots' Associations agreed, saying that final decisions to fly must not be based on commercial considerations but on pilots' safety assessments. @Email:dsapsted@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Reuters