Volcanic ash closes European airports, stranding tens of thousands of travelers
April 15, 2010 | 7:10 a.m.
<<For the first time since Sept. 11, 2001, all British airports were ordered shut down Thursday, a move prompted not by terrorism but by drifting ash spewed from an Icelandic volcano. Air traffic also was halted over Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland, stranding tens of thousands of travelers. Shutdowns and cancellations spread to France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Britain's National Air Traffic Control Service issued the order at midday and said later that it would last until at least 6 a.m. Friday morning. (10 p.m. Thursday PDT). The service said that "there will be no flights permitted in U.K.-controlled airspace other than emergency situations," concluding, "It is very unlikely that the situation over England will improve in the foreseeable future." It issued continual bulletins as the threatening sulfuric cloud drifting over northern Scotland was forecast to reach down across the British Isles and over to continental Europe throughout Thursday. International flights to and from the United States are likely to be affected. "The ash borne by winds in the direction of Britain and Scandinavia is known to interfere with aircraft engines, causing them to shut down," it warned.
The U.S. Geological Survey said about 100 aircraft encountered volcanic ash from 1983 to 2000. In some cases, engines shut down briefly after sucking in volcanic debris, but there have been no fatal incidents. The ash also interferes with visibility.
Although some airports were closed at 7 a.m. Thursday, thousands of passengers who knew nothing of the situation turned up for flights, only to be turned away and told of indefinite delays. Gradually throughout the morning, disappointed travelers were clogging airports, and immobile aircraft were causing huge parking problems on runways.
At Manchester Airport, crowded by about 45,000 people and 300 grounded aircraft, passenger Donna Thomas told BBC reporter that she'd expected to be in Orlando, Fla., later Thursday. "Now we're waiting for taxi to go home," she said. Her bored teenage son, Matthew ,was equally fed up and complaining: "I had to get up at half five this morning, which wasn't good."
Dr. Hazel Rymers, a vulcanologist from the Open University, told the BBC that the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull caused such a massive ash cloud because "its source is underneath an icecap about 200 meters thick." The eruption is causing "not so much lava flows but rocks turning into ash shooting up between 8 and 11 kilometers up, and that's what's causing the cloud."
The closing of British skies is "a movable feast," said Cathy West of the British Airways' press office. "We've told passengers to go home and offered them refunds or rebooking." A spokesman for Heathrow Airport said, "We don't yet know when restrictions will be lifted," and workers there too were telling passengers not to come to the airport. Paul Haskins, a spokesman for the air traffic service, told the BBC at around midday that "the volcano is still erupting and affecting the U.K.'s upper air." Weather office officials were monitoring the situation, but the eventual outcome is unpredictable, and the reopening of airports ultimately depends on the wind and the activity of Eyjafjallajokull.
In Iceland, hundreds of people fled floodwaters after the volcano under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier erupted Wednesday for the second time in less than a month. As water gushed down the mountainside, rivers rose up to 10 feet by Wednesday night, slicing the island nation's main road in half.>>