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Ash cloud from Iceland volcano shuts down air traffic

Ash cloud from Iceland's spewing volcano halted air traffic across a wide swath of Europe on Thursday.

By Malcolm RitterAssociated Press / April 15, 2010

In this image made available by the Icelandic Coastguard, smoke and steam rises from the volcano under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier in Iceland, which erupted for the second time in less than a month, melting ice, shooting smoke and steam into the air and forcing hundreds of people to flee rising floodwaters.

AP Photo/Icelandic Coastguard

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New York

An ash cloud from Iceland's spewing volcano halted air traffic across a wide swath of Europe on Thursday, grounding planes on a scale unseen since the 2001 terror attacks as authorities stopped all flights over Britain, Ireland and the Nordic countries.

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Thousands of flights were canceled, stranding tens of thousands of passengers, and officials said it was not clear when it would be safe enough to fly again.

An aviation expert said it was the first time in living memory that an ash cloud had affected some of the most congested airspace in the world, while a scientist in Iceland said the ejection of volcanic ash — and therefore disruptions in air travel — could continue for days or even weeks.

IN PICTURES: Iceland volcano

"At the present time it is impossible to say when we will resume flying," said Henrik Peter Joergensen, the spokesman for Copenhagen's airport in Denmark, where some 25,000 passengers were affected.

The ash plume, which rose to between 20,000 feet and 36,000 feet (6,000 meters and 11,000 meters), lies above the Atlantic Ocean close to the flight paths for most routes from the U.S. east coast to Europe.

With the cloud drifting south and east across Britain, the country's air traffic service banned all non-emergency flights until at least 7 a.m. Friday. Irish authorities closed their air space for at least eight hours, and aviation authorities in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Belgium took similar precautions.

The move shut down London's five major airports including Heathrow, a major trans-Atlantic hub that handles over 1,200 flights and 180,000 passengers per day. Airport shutdowns and flight cancellations spread eastward across Europe — to France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Ireland, Sweden, Finland and Switzerland — and the effects reverberated worldwide.

French officials shut down all flights to Paris and 23 other airports.

Airlines in the United States canceling some flights to Europe and delayed others. In Washington, the Federal Aviation Administration said it was working with airlines to try to reroute some flights around the massive ash cloud.

Flights from Asia, Africa and the Middle East to Heathrow and other top European hubs were also put on hold.