LONDON, (Reuters) – A huge ash cloud from an Icelandic volcano spread out across Europe on Friday causing air travel chaos on a scale not seen since the Sept. 11 attacks.
About 17,000 flights were expected to be cancelled on Friday due to the dangers posed for a second day by volcanic ash from Iceland, aviation officials said. Airports in Britain, France, Germany, and across Europe were closed until at least Saturday. “I would think Europe was probably experiencing its greatest disruption to air travel since 9/11,” said a spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority, Britain’s aviation regulator. “In terms of closure of airspace, this is worse than after 9/11. The disruption is probably larger than anything we’ve probably seen.”
Following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on Washington and New York, U.S. airspace was closed for three days and European airlines were forced to halt all transatlantic services.
Vulcanologists say the ash could cause problems to air traffic for up to 6 months if the eruption continues, but even if it is short-lived the financial impact on airlines could be significant.
The fallout hit airlines’ shares on Friday with Lufthansa, British Airways, Air Berlin, Air France-KLM, Iberia and Ryanair down between 0.8 and 2.2 percent.
The International Air Transport Association said only days ago that airlines were just coming out of recession.
The flight cancellations would cost carriers such as British Airways and Lufthansa about 10 million pounds ($16.04 million) a day, transport analyst Douglas McNeill said. “To lose that sum of money isn’t a very pleasant experience but it’s of limited commercial significance as well,” he told BBC TV. “A couple of days like this won’t matter too much. If it goes on for weeks, that’s a different story.”
The volcano began erupting on Wednesday for the second time in a month from below the Eyjafjallajokull glacier, hurling a plume of ash 6 to 11 km (4 to 7 miles) into the atmosphere.
Officials said it was still spewing magma and although the eruption could abate in the coming days, ash would continue drifting into the skies of Europe.
Volcanic ash contains tiny particles of glass and pulverised rock that can damage engines and airframes.
In 1982 a British Airways jumbo jet lost power in all its engines when it flew into an ash cloud over Indonesia, gliding towards the ground before it was able to restart its engines.
The incident prompted the aviation industry to rethink the way it prepared for ash clouds.
Of the 28,000 flights that usually travel through European airspace on an average day, European aviation control agency Eurocontrol said it expected only 11,000 to operate on Friday while only about a third of transatlantic flights were arriving.
The British Meteorological Office showed the cloud drifting south and west over Europe. Eurocontrol warned problems would continue for at least another 24 hours and an aviation expert at the World Meteorological Organisation said it was impossible to say when flights would resume.
“We can only predict the time that flights will resume after the eruption has stopped, but for as long as the eruption is still going on and still leading to a significant eruption, we cannot say,” said Scylla Sillayo, a senior official in the WMO’s aeronautical meteorology unit.
Britain’s air traffic control body said all English airspace would be closed until 2400 GMT on Friday although certain flights from Northern Ireland and Scottish airports were being allowed to take off until 1800 GMT. “When the experts give us the all-clear we’ll get the operation back up and running,” Paul Haskins, head of safety at National Air Traffic Service, told BBC radio. There were no flights from London’s Heathrow, Europe’s busiest airport, which handles some 180,000 passengers a day, while officials at Germany’s Frankfurt airport, Europe’s second busiest, said flights would be suspended from 0600 GMT.
Around 2,000 people slept overnight at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, a spokeswoman said, adding they did not expect airspace in the Netherlands to reopen soon.
Eurocontrol said airspace was closed over Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Estonia, the north of the Czech Republic, northern France including all Paris airports, and at airports in northern Germany, Austria and parts of Poland.
Polish officials said if the disruption continued, it might force a delay in Sunday’s funeral for President Lech Kaczynski and his wife who were killed in a plane crash last Saturday.
Airlines across Asia and the Middle East have also cancelled or delayed flights to most European destinations. However, as the ash plume drifted south over Europe, Irish officials said most of the airspace over Ireland had reopened.
The air problems have proved a boon for rail companies. All 58 Eurostar trains between Britain and Europe were operating full, carrying some 46,500 passengers, and a spokeswoman said they would consider adding services if problems persisted.