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Air travel chaos continues; hope after test flights

London, April 18, 2010

Air travel across much of Europe was paralysed for a fourth day on Sunday by a huge cloud of volcanic ash, but Dutch and German test flights carried out without apparent damage seemed to offer hope of respite.

Many countries closed their airspace until well into Sunday or Monday, leaving tens of thousands of passengers stranded worldwide, and weather experts said wind patterns meant the cloud was not likely to move far until later in the week.

They said the dark grey plume rising from an Icelandic volcano and drifting southwards through the upper atmosphere could become more concentrated on Tuesday and Wednesday, posing an even greater risk and threatening to compound airline losses running at more than $200 million a day.

The no-fly rulings have been imposed because the dust of pulverised rock and glass particles can paralyse jet engines and damage airframes. Test flights on Saturday prompted some optimism from airline officials.

For some, businesses dependent on the speed of air freight the impact has been immediate.

Kenya's flower exporters said they were already losing up to $2 million a day because they had not been able to airlift their blooms. Kenya accounts for about a third of flower imports into the European Union.

Dutch airline KLM said it flew a Boeing 737-800 at the regular altitude of 10 km (6 miles) and up to the 13 km maximum on Saturday. Germany's Lufthansa said it flew 10 planes to Frankfurt from Munich at altitudes of up to 8 km.

'We have found nothing unusual, neither during the flight, nor during the first inspection on the ground,' said KLM chief executive Peter Hartman, who took part in the test.

'If the technical examination confirms this image, we are ready tomorrow (Sunday) to fly back our seven planes from Duesseldorf to Amsterdam. We then hope to get permission as soon as possible to partially restart our operations.'     

A Dutch government spokeswoman said Saturday's tests were  conducted at the request of the European Union to see whether travel disruption could be alleviated. More trial flights would take place on Sunday.      

The air travel disruption is the worst since the Sept 11 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, when US airspace was closed for three days and European airlines were forced to halt all transatlantic services.

The cloud has forced several world leaders to rearrange travel plans. US President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and others have cancelled trips to Poland for the funeral on Sunday of Polish President Lech Kaczynski, killed in a plane crash in Russia a week ago. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev planned to go ahead with his flight to Krakow.

US-based forecaster AccuWeather said the ash was in an area of weak wind flow and was unlikely to move far on Monday. 'The plume is expected to become more concentrated Tuesday and Wednesday, posing a greater threat to air travel. However, it is also expected to become narrower, impacting a smaller area,' said AccuWeather.   

It said an Atlantic storm and change in the direction of the jetstream on Thursday could break up the cloud. Britain's weather agency told BBC television it was likely the cloud would remain over Britain for some days.

Britain and Germany were among countries to declare their airspace closed late into Sunday. France said Paris airports would be closed until at least Monday morning and all French airports would close from 1200GMT.      

Unless the cloud disrupts flights for weeks, threatening factories' supply chains, economists do not think it will significantly slow Europe's shaky recovery from recession or affect second-quarter gross domestic product figures.   

'The overall impact should be very limited even if the problem persists for a day or more,' said IHS Global Insight chief UK and European economist Howard Archer.   

Airlines could suffer a severe financial blow. British Airways, hit by strikes last month that cost it around $70 million, cancelled all Sunday's flights.    

Disruption spread to Asia, where dozens of Europe-bound flights were cancelled and hotels from Beijing to Singapore strained to accommodate stranded passengers.   

More than four in five flights by US airlines to and from Europe were cancelled on Saturday. Shipping company FedEx Corp said more than 100 FedEx Express flights headed to Europe were rerouted, diverted or cancelled within the past 72 hours.-Reuters




Tags: Europe | Flights | Volcano | Air travel | Ash |

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