Iceland's volcanic ash cloud to cover British air space today

Authorities have already grounded more than 250 flights as a volcanic ash cloud from Iceland's Grímsvötn volcano covers British air space. They appear better prepared to limit the fallout after last year's Iceland volcano disruption.

Scott Heppell/AP
A passenger sat by the check-in desk after flights were canceled at Edinburgh Airport in Edinburgh, Scotland Tuesday. A dense ash cloud from an Icelandic volcano blew toward Scotland, causing airlines to cancel Tuesday flights and raising fears of a repeat of last year's huge travel disruptions in Europe that stranded millions of passengers.

An ash cloud from Iceland's Grímsvötn volcano has already grounded more than 250 flights to and from Scotland and Northern Ireland and is expected to cover all of the United Kingdom's air space by the end of Tuesday.

The eruption of Grímsvötn on Saturday evening is believed to have been 100 to 1,000 times more powerful than that of another Iceland volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, which last April spewed an ash cloud that covered wide swaths of Europe, grounding thousands of flights, stranding travelers for days, and costing the airline industry billions of dollars in lost revenue.

Despite the strength of the Grímsvötn eruption, however, the concentration of ash in the air is much lower than after last year's Eyjafjallajökull eruption and is not expected to wreak as much havoc on air travel overall. Authorities also appear better prepared to limit the fallout after learning lessons from last year.

IN PICTURES: Grímsvötn volcano erupts

“Our number one priority is to ensure the safety of people both onboard aircraft and on the ground,” says Andrew Haines, the chief executive of the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). “We can’t rule out disruption, but the new arrangements that have been put in place since last year’s ash cloud will help to reduce any disruption in the event that volcanic ash affects UK airspace.”

How bad will it be?

Forecasters say that changing weather patterns make it difficult to assess how long the UK is likely to be affected and how significant a threat the cloud poses to the rest of Europe.

But British Airways, KLM, Ryanair, Aer Lingus, and EasyJet have already canceled flights to Scotland, as the CAA declared it a temporary danger area. Some trans-Atlantic flights have also been reported delayed, the result of rerouting to avoid the ash.

Even US President Obama was forced to change the itinerary of his European tour, flying into London from Ireland earlier than scheduled to avoid the ash.

Managing the 'crisis'

The European Aviation Crisis Coordination Cell (EACCC), which was set up in response to the effects of last year’s Eyjafjallajökull eruption, was yesterday activated for the first time. The body, which comprises officials from European states, aviation experts, and airlines, recommended a revised approach to flight operations, allowing aircraft to fly in areas contaminated by ash, as long as the concentration levels of ash in those areas remain below a certain level.

Last year, authorities imposed a blanket ban on flights in areas where ash was present, amid fears that ash poses a significant risk to aircraft engines.

Unnecessary cancellations?

Ryanair, which has been advised by the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) that it cannot operate flights to and from the Scottish cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, or Aberdeen until at least 1 p.m. local time today, says it strongly objects to the decision and will be seeking a meeting with the IAA to have the restrictions lifted as a matter of urgency.

In a statement, it says, “Ryanair believe that there is no safety risk to aircraft on fights operating to and from Scotland and together with other airlines will be complaining to the Transport Minister and Regulatory Authorities about these latest and unnecessary cancellations.”

Grímsvötn, which lies beneath the Vatnajökull glacier, is Iceland’s most active volcano. Its last eruption was in 2004. Previous eruptions have not resulted in wide-ranging flight disturbances.

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