Ireland airports reopen as Iceland volcano ash dissipates, but more may be on the way

Airports in Ireland were shut for about eight hours on Tuesday as winds carried ash from the Icelandic volcano into flight paths. Though travel is now getting back to normal, meteorologists say summer winds could lead to more disruption at European airports.

Peter Morrison/AP
Passengers wait for flights at Dublin airport, Tuesday. The Irish Aviation Authority grounded flights at all Irish airports Monday, because of a risk to aircraft engines from Iceland's volcano ash.

Europeans are bracing themselves for another blast of travel troubles as Icelandic volcano ash clogs up British and Irish airspace once more.

Airports in the Republic of Ireland were closed for eights hours on Tuesday as prevailing winds once more brought ash from an Iceland volcano closer to the European mainland.

They are now reopened, but the Nordic nation of Iceland is surely vying for the title of most loathed country in Europe.

First, Iceland's economy collapsed, causing financial fallout across the Continent. Then the tiny country of just 300,000 people paralyzed all of Europe when the Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted, spewing out clouds of volcanic ash that grounded air travel across much of the Continent for a full six days.

Ireland-based pilot and aviation expert Kieran O'Connor says the safety measures were a moral and safety responsibility. “It was no disaster where safety was concerned – if one person had died, that would have been a disaster. I believe the aviation authorities acted very responsibly,” he says.

Mr. O’Connor who is licensed to fly airliners, helicopters, and small planes, runs a flight training school and is a flight examiner for the Irish Aviation Authority.
“It’s an issue of safety where jet and turbo-prop engines are concerned. The density of the ash can shut down those engines,” he says.

Expensive shutdown

The six-day shutdown in April cost the European airline industry an estimated $1.7 billion, according to a report from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), an industry trade group based in Quebec, Canada.

Now Eyjafjallajokull is at it again: flights were grounded Tuesday in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, the Faroe Islands, and parts of Scotland after a new volcanic ash plume drifted south.

An Irish Aviation Authority spokesperson said: “[We] imposed restrictions on all flights in and out of Ireland from 0700 hours local until 1300 hours on Tuesday, 4 May, 2010, due to risk of ash ingestion in aircraft engines.”

Although airspace has now re-opened, there are concerns the situation could recur in the coming months.

Complaining about the changeable weather is a national obsession in Ireland, but the ash cloud’s ability to disrupt modern life has raised the stakes significantly.

After the chaos in mid-April many Europeans are worried their summer holidays will be spoiled by further volcanic activity.

Irish Times travel reporter Rosemary MacCabe was stranded in Spain for four days by the last ash cloud.

"It was as if I was never going to get home,” she said. “Each hour became a day, each day became a week, and the longer I was there, the less Spanish I could speak, the less enthused I was about tapas, the less time I wanted to spend making small talk with tourists when I could have been watching America's Next Top Model at home.”

Ms. MacCabe, who eventually made her way home over land and sea at a cost of over €600 ($785), was visiting Granada for her newspaper.

More ash on way?

Evelyn Cusack, deputy head of forecasting with Met Éireann, the Irish meteorological office, says it’s difficult to predict when the ash will come and go but that typical Irish summer conditions are adding to the problem.

“We have forecasts for ten to fifteen days ahead. Right now there’s high pressure to the west of Ireland and the winds are moving clockwise, steering the ash down from Iceland,” she said.

In the short term there seems little hope for permanently clear skies: “Our ten day forecast has no sign of Atlantic southwesterlies that would help move it away,” Ms. Cusack said.

A status report published by the Icelandic Meteorological Office and Institute of Earth Sciences at the University of Iceland warned: “There are no measurable indications that the eruption is about to end.”

Too careful?

Ryanair, the low-budget airline run by outspoken Irish businessman Michael O’Leary, has questioned the way European governments have handled the situation.

“During the closure previous we were very happy to take the advice provided to us that it was a safety issue [but] there are certainly some questions on how long airspace needed to remain closed,” says Stephen McNamara, Ryanair’s head of communications. “We do support the decision to close airspace, the issue all airlines are having is the impact it's having on passengers and the industry – we’re left carrying the can as the insurer of last resort.”

Mr. McNamara says he does not expect another full-scale closure of airspace and sees no signs that people have lost faith in air travel.
“Nobody knows what's going to happen. I don't think we'll see the level of disruption we saw two weeks ago. What we may see is intermittent clouds. Today it is Ireland, tomorrow it could be Sweden,” he added.

Spanish transport minister Jose Blanco has called for rapid implementation of the ‘Single European Sky’ (SES) project to unite airspace management. The issue is set to be discussed at a meeting of Europe’s Transport Council on May 4 and is supported by the IATA. SES is a European Commission initiative that many feel would reduce the impact of future events such as the volcanic eruption.

IATA director general Giovanni Bisignani, issued a statement saying he supports the move, adding: “The volcanic ash crisis that paralyzed European air transport for nearly a week made it crystal clear that the 'SES' is a critical missing link in Europe’s infrastructure.”


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