Airspace reopens as ash risk downgraded

Europe's skies are open for business once more, but disruption will continue as airlines work to get planes and crews to where they are needed.

With so many planes having been grounded by the pall of volcanic ash spreading from Iceland it could take days or weeks to clear the backlog.

Britain, a global air hub as well as a busy destination in its own right that has been squarely under the ash plume, reopened its airspace on Tuesday night (20 April), giving a huge boost to travellers and air freight.

British Airways said it would operate all its long-haul flights departing from Heathrow and Gatwick airports on Wednesday, but there would be short-haul cancellations to and from London airports until 1 p.m.

Britain's Civil Aviation Authority made clear that scientists and manufacturers had downgraded the risk of flying in areas of relatively low ash concentrations.

"The major barrier to resuming flight has been understanding tolerance levels of aircraft to ash. Manufacturers have now agreed increased tolerance levels in low ash density areas," CAA head Deidre Hutton said.

France, Poland, the Netherlands and Germany have also allowed flights to resume.

Flights from Beijing and other Chinese cities to European destinations have begun to return to normal. The airline warned, however, that it would keep in contact with European aviation authorities about weather conditions and could alter flight plans if warranted.

Britain had lagged its European neighbours in downgrading the threat to airplanes from the ash, which can potentially scour and even paralyse jet engines.

In 1982 a British Airways jet lost power in all four engines after flying through an ash cloud above the Indian Ocean.

With aircraft having flown successful test flights for several days, recriminations have started about what took governments so long to give the green light to an airline industry which according to the International Air Travel Association (IATA) lost some $1.7 billion.

The head of IATA urged governments to examine ways to compensate airlines for their lost revenues.

"It is an extraordinary situation exaggerated with a poor decision-making process by national governments," IATA director general and CEO Giovanni Bisignani said in a statement.

Airlines did however save around $110 million a day on costs such as fuel, IATA said.

The Association of European Airlines, representing 36 major commercial and freight carriers, criticised Britain on Tuesday for not reopening its skies sooner.

"Other people look to the UK and say 'Why are they still cautious when we are thinking of opening up?' and of course this can influence judgments," David Henderson, AEA manager of information, told Reuters before Britain lifted its no-fly zone.

Icelandic officials say the volcano under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier is still erupting, but producing much less ash.

An expert from the World Meteorological Organisation said in Geneva that a low pressure weather system moving into Iceland should help clear the ash cloud within days.

For the airline industry, which said its losses from the shutdown were worse than after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, freeing up the flights is a welcome relief. But with aircraft and crew scattered where they were grounded on 15 April, timetables will be wrecked.

"To get back to normal levels of operation from an industry point of view will take weeks," British Airways chief executive Willie Walsh told BBC television.

The European aviation control agency Eurocontrol said about half of scheduled air traffic in Europe had been expected to operate on Tuesday: about 14,000 flights, up from a third on Monday. More than 95,000 flights would have been cancelled between Thursday 15 April and the end of Tuesday 20 April, the organisation said.

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