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.
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.
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
Over the weekend, individual airlines, including KLM, Lufthansa, British Airways and Air France, began flying test flights to the altitude where simulations predict the ash cloud is lingering. According to predictions, the plane’s engines should have been damaged by tiny particles of rock and glass that comprise the cloud. However, each of the planes tested showed no signs of damage and officials from the airlines began urging air traffic control authorities to review their decisions to ground flights.
Yet the tests did little to persuade authorities. British transportation secretary Andrew Adonis said late Sunday that despite the results from the tests, flights in northern Europe would not be safe today. Lufthansa has now canceled all flights until midnight, while Air France has canceled all flights out of Paris until Tuesday morning.
Since delays began last week, airlines have lost tens of millions of dollars per day, with some considering emergency layoffs. Willie Walsh, president and CEO of British Airways, said the European Union needs to provide compensation to offset the losses.
“There is a precedent for this to happen as compensation was paid after the closure of US airspace following the terrorist events of 9/11, and clearly the impact of the current situation is more considerable,” Walsh said in a statement.
Some airports, including Rome, Prague, Nice, France, and Barcelona, Spain are open today, but flights are limited to areas unaffected by the ash cloud. Some airlines, including Air Canada, hired buses to drive stranded travelers 15 hours from Frankfurt to Rome to catch a flight back to Canada Tuesday. While the flight is covered by the original reservation, the bus ticket cost 150 euros ($201).
However, schemes such as the one devised by Air Canada have done little to ease the backlog of passengers at Frankfurt, one of Europe’s largest airports. Even when the ban is lifted, there is no guarantee that a quick departure will follow. This reporter, whose flight to Washington Dulles airport was canceled last Friday, was told that he would not be able to leave Frankfurt until this coming weekend, at the earliest. Other passengers were told it was not clear how long they would have to wait to reach their destination.
Despite this uncertainty, passengers waited in lines this morning in an attempt to find some way out of Frankfurt, whether by bus, train or plane. Others passengers, who couldn’t get a hotel room or couldn’t leave because of visa restrictions, rested uncomfortably on cots provided at the Frankfurt Airport, giving the airport the feel of a refugee camp. Much of the courtesy displayed last Friday, when an extended travel ban seemed unrealistic, was now gone.
“It’s pretty testy now, both when airline workers are talking to customers and when customers are talking to other customers,” said Taylor Ashley, an 18-year old American trying to get to South Africa. “Any of the niceness we had last week is gone.”
“We don’t want to add to the chaos,” Taylor added, referring to the group of young Americans he was traveling with. “Maybe we need to get used to the idea that we’re going to be in Frankfurt for a few more days. Right now, who knows how long we’ll be here.”