Iceland volcano grounds 250 Scottish flights

Ash is disrupting travel all over the northern UK, and conditions may get worse.

By MSN Money Partner May 24, 2011 7:11AM

By Steve Rothwell and Omar R. Valdimarsson, Bloomberg News

 

British Airways, Air France-KLM (AF) Group and a dozen other carriers canceled more than 250 flights and U.S. President Barack Obama curtailed his visit to Ireland after ash from an Icelandic volcano drifted over the northern U.K.

 

BA halted services to Scotland, where Glasgow and Edinburgh airports were closed intermittently, while United Continental Holdings Inc. (UAL) scrapped three U.S. flights. Ryanair Holdings Plc (RYA), Europe’s biggest discount airline, said there is “no basis” for cancelations and that it today operated a “verification flight” over Scotland and found no evidence of dust in the atmosphere.

 

Ash from another Icelandic volcano closed European airspace for six days last year, halting 100,000 flights at a cost of $1.7 billion, according to the International Air Transport Association. While limits on flying have since been loosened, ash densities after the eruption of the Grimsvotn volcano on May 21 are such that some areas of airspace have still been closed.

 

“It now looks as if we’re going to face a period where there is quite a lot more activity,” U.K. Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said today, adding that ash concentrations need to be 20 times higher than in 2010 for flights to be grounded. “It’s something we have to get used to, we have to learn to manage. We’ve come on a very long way since last year.”

 

‘Worse’ Tomorrow

 

As many as 600 of the region’s 13,000 scheduled flights may be affected today, Brian Flynn, operations chief at Eurocontrol, which oversees regional air traffic, said today in an interview. The situation may be “a little bit worse” tomorrow as the cloud drifts south, though no major airports should close, he said.

 

Ash from Iceland may affect Scotland from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., the U.K.’s National Air Traffic Services Ltd. said. Aberdeen airport in northeast Scotland, a transport hub for the North Sea oil industry, remains closed, NATS said. Helicopters serving rigs from Norway were also grounded, Avinor, which oversees Norwegian air traffic, said today in a statement.

 

Ryanair performed a test flight after being forced to scrap Scottish services until 1 p.m. at least and found no evidence of ash on the plane’s airframe, wings or engines, it said, lobbying for the reopening of airspace over the U.K. and Ireland.

 

‘Real Risk’

 

Eurocontrol’s Flynn said the dust presents a “very real risk,” with the U.K. Met Office’s Volcanic Ash Advisory Center predicting dense ash will drift over most of Scotland today, mainly at lower altitudes, extending toward Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Midnight forecasts show ash stretching across Scotland and northern England almost as far as the Netherlands.

 

British Airways canceled more than 25 takeoffs at Scottish airports through 2 p.m. and said trans-Atlantic services suffered “minor delays” taking longer routes to avoid Iceland.

 

Continental Airlines scrapped two flights to Edinburgh and one to Glasgow from Newark, New Jersey, and said that with no planes available return trips are also canceled. U.S. carriers with flights elsewhere in the U.K. are operating normally.

 

EasyJet Plc (EZJ), Europe’s No. 2 discount carrier, halted all flights to Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness. Discount airlines including EasyJet and Ryanair were among those worst affected by last year’s eruption because their operations depend on quick turnaround times and high utilization of planes.

 

The U.K. Civil Aviation Authority has revised its rules to let airlines fly in an ash density of two grams or less per 10 cubic meters of air. They can also operate where the density is two to four grams, provided they have had their safety case for doing so accepted, the CAA says, but flights are still banned at levels above four grams like those predicted over Scotland.

 

Exclusion Zones

 

Dublin-based Ryanair said in a statement today that this high-density “red zone” is “mythical” and based only on weather forecasts, not real readings. Europe should instead adopt exclusion zones around volcanoes, typically of 150 miles, as employed in Asia and North America, where volcanic eruptions are more commonplace, Chief Executive Officer Michael O’Leary said.

 

“Most of the airlines were deeply unhappy with the CAA and Met Office people last year because in other parts of the world where they’ve had volcanoes airlines keep flying,” O’Leary said yesterday in an interview in London. “If you see the volcanic ash cloud, don’t fly through it. But if you’re 5,000 kilometers away there is no volcanic ash up overhead.”

 

‘Better Prepared’

 

CAA CEO Andrew Haines said in a statement that the organizations No. 1 priority is to ensure the safety of passengers and those on the ground.

“We can’t rule out disruption, but the new arrangements that have been put in place since last year mean the aviation sector is better prepared,” Haines said.

 

Eurocontrol, which yesterday convened the European Aviation Crisis Coordination Cell, established after last year’s eruption to bring airlines together with regulators during emergencies, said today that an unseasonably deep low pressure system which passed over Britain last night makes it difficult to predict where the ash will drift beyond today.

 

“Due to unstable meteorological conditions, it is not possible to identify with certainty the movements of the ash cloud beyond that time frame,” Eurocontrol said in a statement, adding that a further update will be given at 4 p.m. today.

 

KLM, Air France’s Dutch unit, canceled 16 morning flights to Scotland and Newcastle upon Tyne in northeast England, while Scottish carrier Loganair canceled most flights and Humberside, England-based Eastern Airways called off its Aberdeen services.

 

The potential for flight disruptions prompted Obama to cut short a visit to Ireland, the first leg of a six-day trip to Europe, with Air Force One leaving a day early for the U.K.

 

Eruption ‘Stable’

 

Iceland’s Met Office said yesterday that the force of the eruption was stable as the height of the plume sank to about 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) from an initial 20 kilometers.

 

Ash covered small towns on Iceland’s southeast coast immediately following the eruption. On May 22 a dark cloud of ash reached Reykjavik, prompting city officials to warn people with asthma or other breathing disorders to stay indoors.

 

Iceland, with a population of about 320,000, is one of the world’s most volcanically and geologically active countries, with frequent eruptions. Grimsvotn, which last vented in 2004, is about 150 kilometers from the 2010 blast at Eyjafjallajokull.

 

“This situation is obviously getting to people and everyone is getting a little tired with this,” gas station owner Gudmundur Vignir Steinsson said from Kirkjubaejarklaustur about 75 kilometers from the volcano.

 

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