Many International Flights Resume, But Ash Forces Closures in Sweden and Norway

By Slobodan Lekic and Carlo Piovano | April 22, 2010 | 5:54 AM EDT
Brussels (AP) - European airports sent thousands of planes into the sky Thursday after a week of unprecedented disruptions, but shifting winds sent a new plume of volcanic ash over Scandinavia, forcing some airports in Norway and Sweden to close again.
The new airspace restrictions applied to northern Scotland and parts of southern Norway, Sweden and Finland, said Kyla Evans, spokeswoman for Eurocontrol, the European air traffic agency.
But nearly all of the continent's 28,000 other scheduled flights, including more than 300 flights on lucrative trans-Atlantic routes, were expected to proceed. Every plane was packed, however, as airlines squeezed in some of the hundreds of thousands of travelers who had been stranded for days among passengers with regular Thursday tickets.
Airlines said there was no quick solution to cut down the backlog of passengers, for most flights were nearly full anyway, and no other planes were available.
"Quite frankly we don't have an answer to this," said David Henderson, spokesman for the Association of European Airlines.
Some passengers got a break. Authorities chartered a luxury cruise ship -- the Celebrity Eclipse -- to pick up 2,200 tourists in the northern Spanish port of Bilbao on Thursday and bring them back to England. A British Royal Navy ship arrived in Portsmouth late Wednesday, carrying 440 troops coming home from Afghanistan and 280 civilians back from Bilbao.
Many planes flying between the United States and Europe were assigned flight paths above the ash cloud that still covered the area east of Iceland. Flying at over 35,000 feet kept the planes well above the current maximum altitude of the ash, which lingered at 20,000 feet.
The Swedish aviation authority said airspace is still open over the capital Stockholm, but closed over the southern cities of Goteborg and Malmo. Spokesman Bjorn Stenberg said changing winds meant the ash cloud over Sweden hadn't dispersed as forecast.
Meanwhile, new ash clouds were blowing in over western Norway, where Stavanger and Bergen airports were closed.
The weeklong airspace closures caused by the ash threat to aircraft represented the worst breakdown in civil aviation in Europe since World War II. This led to the cancellations of more than 100,000 flights, with airlines on track to lose over $2 billion.
The aviation crisis that began with an April 14 volcanic explosion left millions of passengers in limbo, and the uncoordinated closures of airspace by national governments sparked calls a the wholesale reform of Europe's air traffic management system.
In Iceland itself, the Eyjafjallajokull volcano threw magma chunks the size of cars into the air on Wednesday and sent powerful shock waves into the air as an Associated Press reporter, photographer and television crew flew over in a helicopter.
In a black crater in the middle of a glacier, red magma thrashed about, propelling steaming blobs of lava onto the surrounding ice. Every so often charges of gas -- which surge from deep inside the mountain through the magma and cause tremors 15 miles (25 kilometers) away -- exploded in a fireworks show of molten rock. The air shivered with a constant, menacing growl, like a perpetual clap of thunder.
Bolts of lightning shot through the fumes and an eerie glow pervaded the pit of fire.
In response to the flight disruptions, the European Union said it was stepping up work on a new management system known as the "Single European Sky" that will largely erase national borders in the sky.
The volcanic ash crisis "exposed serious flaws and that is something that probably cannot be ignored much longer," EU spokeswoman Helen Kearns said.
The EU has 27 national air traffic control networks, 60 air traffic centers and hundreds of approach centers and towers. The airspace is a jigsaw puzzle of more than 650 sectors.
In contrast, the U.S. air traffic management system is twice as efficient. On any given day, it manages twice the number of EU flights for a similar cost but from only about 20 control centers.
European governments and civil aviation authorities defended their decisions to ground fleets and close the skies -- and later to reopen them -- against heated accusations by airline chiefs that the decisions were based on flawed data or unsubstantiated fears.
The International Air Transport Association has called on the EU to quickly compensate airlines for lost revenue, much like the U.S. government did following the 9/11 terror attacks.
IATA also called for the EU's stringent passenger rights regulations -- which force airlines to pay for hotels and meals costs in cases of routine flight delays -- to be relaxed to reflect the extraordinary nature of the crisis.
Military aviation also was partly paralyzed, although NATO took the precaution of moving its Boeing E-3A early warning radar planes to southern Italy. From there they were able to conduct high-altitude surveillance missions considered critical to the alliance's air defenses.
"Military flying within the UK was brought to a complete halt other than search-and-rescue sorties," said Glenn Sands from Air Forces Monthly, a specialized British publication.
"For those undergoing pilot training ... the ash cloud has caused a significant delay in their training schedule resulting in the next class of pilots graduating ceremony being moved back by a number of weeks."
Lekic is an AP aviation writer based in Brussels. Piovano reported from Iceland. Associated Press writers Robert Wielaard in Brussels and Malin Rising in Stockholm also contributed to this report.
The current airspace restrictions applied to northern Scotland and parts of southern Norway, Sweden and Finland, said Kyla Evans, spokeswoman for Eurocontrol, the European air traffic agency.