Volcanic ash cloud: Where is it now - May 18?

The volcanic ash cloud from Iceland dissipated today and a British Airways labor strike was canceled, allowing Europe's airports to return to near-normal operations. But the British Met Office is taking fire for its volcanic ash cloud forecasts.

Ingolfur Juliusson/Reuters
An ash plume rises from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano Monday.

Air travelers got a triple dose of good news Tuesday as the volcanic ash cloud from Iceland dissipated, a British court canceled a massive British Airways labor strike, and the British Civil Aviation Authority narrowed the no-fly zones.

All in all, it means the return to near-normal flight operations in Europe today and likely for the rest of this week.

“The ash cloud is not expected to continue to affect the UK as south-westerly winds have become established, driving the ash away from UK airspace,” the Meteorological Office (Britain's government weather service) announced late Monday on its website. The Met Office’s five-day forecast shows the ash cloud clear of Britain and continental Europe for the entire week.

IN PICTURES: Iceland volcano

Airports in London, Amsterdam, Scotland, and Ireland all reopened Monday, although airports on the Shetland Islands, north of Scotland, were reportedly still affected late Monday and the situation there appeared fluid Tuesday.

Also on Monday, the British Court of Appeal barred a five-day labor strike planned for May 18-22, ruling that British Airways members violated labor laws on strike-vote notification. The ruling allows British Airways to carry an additional 25,000 people daily, although the airline said it would take several days to return to normal operations.

“We are delighted,” BA said on its website. “We have now started to reinstate some of the previously canceled flights over the next few days into and out of Heathrow.”

Smaller no-fly zone

Further good news for travelers came on Monday from the British Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which announced that, starting midday Tuesday, it would allow flights through “higher ash densities than is currently permitted.”

“This means that areas of our airspace that would have previously been closed can safely open, further minimizing flight disruption,” the CAA announced on its website. The CAA said the widened fly zone came after analyzing test flights through the current ash cloud over the past month, as well as examining data and evidence compiled from previous volcanic ash incidents combined with additional analysis from manufacturers.

“Unprecedented situations require new measures,” CAA Chief Executive Andrew Haines said in a statement, adding that aircraft- and engine-makers should determine what level of ash their planes can tolerate.

The UK air traffic control company NATS said, on its website, it was "delighted that restrictions on UK airspace can today be eased," which meant there were "no predicted restrictions on UK airspace in the immediate future."

“There is mounting evidence that aircraft can fly safely through areas of medium density, provided some additional precautions are taken. This is now what has been agreed,” NATS Chief Executive Officer Richard Deakin said the statement. NATS is the now privatized national air traffic control service formerly run by the British government.

MET under fire

The ash cloud's dissipation and the smaller no-fly zone allowed airports in Britain to return to normal operations Tuesday, but finger-pointing has now risen over the accuracy of weekend forecasts from the British Met Office that caused the CAA to impose a six-hour, no-fly zone over southern Britain early Monday, causing the cancellation of 200 flights at Heathrow, 88 at Gatwick, and 40 at Liverpool airport.

Willie Walsh, the chief executive of British Airways, said the ash cloud simply “did not exist” over London on Monday. Virgin Atlantic head Sir Richard Branson said the MET had made "crass, stupid decisions." The CAA also criticized the Met Office, saying the agency had forecast "something which was not subsequently backed up.”

For its part, the Met defended its forecasting.

"There was ash over the UK,” MET press officer John Hammond said, according to the UK Press Association. “Our forecasts are updated regularly and are based on a number of factors, including observations from space and inputs from our colleagues in Iceland. I cannot stress enough just how changeable the ash-cloud situation is. There is change hour by hour and we try to feed through as much information as we possibly can."

At winds' will

While the ash cloud from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano is gone for now, Mr. Hammond warned that unfavorable winds could push it back into European airspace.

"The problem has been that we have been having long periods where winds have come from the northwest and this has blown the ash over the British Isles," he said.

"As we saw over the weekend, winds can and do change, and the ash cloud can come back at any time," a spokeswoman for American Airlines told USA Today.

In its May 17 update (pdf), the Icelandic Meteorological Office and Institute of Earth Sciences said: "The volcanic activity is explosive, but there are indications that it has somewhat lessened since the maximum on 13 May. Considerable ashfall is in the neighbouring communities and is expected to continue. Fluctuations in the strength of the eruption and in ashfall can still be expected."

The Guardian is running a live blog with flight updates. Eurocontrol’s Twitter page also has regular announcements.

The ash cloud has downed tens of thousands of flights since its April 14 eruption. When Eyjafjallajökull last erupted, in 1821, it kept spewing ash for about 14 months, and companies are preparing for an extended period of flight disruptions.

With airports in Britain closed much of the weekend and on Monday, Virgin trains announced on its website it had made 7,000 extra train seats available Sunday and Monday for journeys between Scotland and London, plus another 5,000 extra seats available Tuesday. Bloomberg news is reporting a surge in train and ferry bookings.

IN PICTURES: Iceland volcano


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