New Europe flights give hope to stranded passengers

LONDON, April 20, 2010 (AFP) - European governments opened the continent's airspace to new flights from Tuesday giving hope to passengers around the world trapped by the cloud of volcano ash that has grounded airlines there.

But British air traffic chiefs said late Monday that the Icelandic volcano at the source of the chaos had spewed a fresh cloud of ash and warned it was headed for Britain.

A passenger rests at the departure terminal of the Ataturk International airport in Istanbul on April 19, 2010. AFP photo

On Monday, the dust that has blanketed much of Europe's skies forced the cancellation of another 20,000 flights, as Britain sent navy ships and other governments took their own measures to rescue stranded passengers.

But under relentless pressure from airlines who have lost more than a billion dollars from the crisis so far, EU transport ministers agreed to ease restrictions from Tuesday.

"From tomorrow morning on, we should progressively see more planes start to fly," EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas said.

Europe's air traffic control group Eurocontrol subsequently predicted that flights over the continent could be running normally again by Thursday.

France said it was progressively reopening airports from Monday, with restricted flights from Paris to start from early Tuesday.

And although flights over Germany remained banned until 1200 GMT Tuesday, some operated with special permission. German flag carrier Lufthansa announced the immediate resumption of all its long-haul flights Monday.

Three KLM flights carrying passengers left Amsterdam-Schiphol airport Monday for Shanghai, Dubai and New York, the Dutch transport minister announced.

Flights heading for Europe from New York's John F. Kennedy airport also started to run again late Monday.

Authorities in Sweden, Croatia, Hungary and the Czech Republic announced the resumption of flights. Romania and Bulgaria announced their airspace had been reopened, while Switzerland said its airspace would reopen early Tuesday.

But hopes that the ash cloud nightmare might be over were tempered by the latest bulletin from British aviation chiefs Tuesday.

"The volcano eruption in Iceland has strengthened and a new ash cloud is spreading south and east towards the UK," said the National Air Traffic Services (NATS), which manages British airspace.

It now looked less likely London airports would be reopened Tuesday, as had been hoped, although plans to open airspace in Scotland should still go ahead, said the air authority.

The problem meanwhile had spread west across the Atlantic Monday, as Canada's Saint John's, Newfoundland announced it had cancelled a batch of domestic flights because of fears the ash would reach their airspace.

In Europe marooned passengers juggled rail, boat and road links, zig-zagging across borders in desperate attempts to make it home -- whether to the other end of Europe or to the United States.

Britain ordered its flagship aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and HMS Ocean and HMS Albion to pick up thousands of Britons from France -- where they have come from all over Europe -- and Spain.

Spain, one of the rare countries operating normally, struck an agreement with Britain, France and Germany to fly hundreds of thousands of their nationals back to Europe via Spanish airports.

Nearly seven million passengers have been affected by the blanket shutdowns, which governments have insisted were essential on safety grounds, given the possibility that the ash could choke up jet engines and provoke air disasters.

But EU leaders have come under fire from the airlines for their handling of the chaos sparked by Iceland's Eyjafjoell volcano, which began erupting last Wednesday.

"This is a European embarrassment and it's a European mess," said Giovanni Bisignani, director general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

But as airlines argued their case, a senior US military official said the ash had affected one of NATO's F-16 fighter planes, which detected a glass build-up inside its engine.

Ash from volcanoes can be turned into a glass form at high temperatures when it passes through a jet engine.

Companies are losing 200 million euros (270 million dollars) per day according to IATA.

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