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Volcano ash cloud: Growing anger over Europe flights canceled

The ash cloud from a volcano in Iceland kept most Europe flights canceled for a fifth day, sparking criticism from an airline group that regulators are being too cautious. What's open? Rome, Prague, Nice, France, and Barcelona, Spain.

By David FrancisCorrespondent / April 19, 2010

Volcano ash cloud: Passengers line up for available flights at Athens International Airport Monday. Most flights to Europe from Athens were again canceled Monday, but airports and domestic flights in Greece operated normally.

Dimitri Messinis/AP



Weekend optimism that the ash cloud from a volcano in Iceland was dissipating, faded Monday as thousands of flights around Europe remained grounded today, stranding millions of passengers. Airline companies are increasingly critical of how European governments are handling the situation.

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Volcanic ash from an eruption in Iceland last Thursday remained over Europe for the fifth consecutive day today, closing German, Dutch and French airspace to all but a few flights. The skies over Britain were also closed, and all of British Airways’ Monday flights were canceled. A US official told Reuters that glass build up from the ash cloud had been found in the engine of a NATO F-16 fighter jet after flying over Europe.

According to Eurocontrol, the Brussels-based agency charged with coordinating air traffic management across Europe, less than one third of 28,000 scheduled flights would take off on Monday. Some 6.8 million passengers have been stranded due to last week’s eruption, according to the international airports council, ACI. Shipments of produce and cut flowers from Kenya -- a country that earns a fifth of its gross domestic product from produce exports to Europe -- have also been severely disrupted.

Prior to Monday the cancellations were largely tolerated simply due to the nature of the delay – no one could have predicted, let alone stopped, the volcanic eruption that is causing the mess. Today, however, as European transportation ministers meet in Madrid to discuss next steps, patience with official reaction to the cloud appears to be wearing thin.

IN PICTURES: Iceland volcano

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), a group which represents most of the world’s airlines, criticized the European Union for its handling of the situation, alleging the EU failed to coordinate among member states and for failing to take actual measurements of the ash cloud, instead relying on computerized simulations for data.

“We are far enough into this crisis to express our dissatisfaction on how governments have managed it - with no risk assessment, no consultation, no coordination and no leadership,” said Giovanni Bisignani, IATA’s director general and CEO, in a statement released early Monday. “Governments must place greater urgency and focus on how and when we can safely re-open Europe’s skies.”

Europe’s method for controlling airspace over the continent is also facing criticism. Europe lacks a unified air traffic control system, making response to the cloud difficult to coordinate across the continent. Instead, individual nations' air traffic authorities have been forced to react to decisions made elsewhere without making their own evaluation of the situation. “This is really a failure of Europe,” Bisignani wrote.

Airline tests show no damage