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Airline body seeks moves to reopen Europe airspace

Source: Reuters - Mon 19th Apr 2010

Airline industry association IATA criticised Europe's response to a volcanic ash cloud and called on Monday for urgent steps to reopen airspace after five days of closures that have cost airlines $250 million (164 million pounds) a day.

IATA head Giovanni Bisignani said authorities in Europe had "missed opportunities to fly safely."

"This volcano has crippled the aviation sector, firstly in Europe and is now having worldwide implications. The scale of the economic impact (on aviation) is now greater than 9/11 when U.S. airspace was closed for three days" Bisignani said, referring to the September 11 2001 attacks in the United States.

"We must move away from this blanket closure and find ways to flexibly open air space, step by step" he told a news briefing in Paris.

European transport ministers are due to discuss the airspace crisis at 2 p.m. British time, after a meeting of the European aviation control agency Eurocontrol, and officials hope flights will increase significantly.

From just over a fifth of flights taking to the air on Sunday, the figure could rise to up to a half on Monday, said the officials. Austria opened their airports on Monday, but other countries kept no-fly decrees in place. Italy re-closed its northern airspace after briefly opening it on Monday.

The closure of most of Europe's airspace because of a huge cloud of ash from an Icelandic volcano stranded millions of passengers, and importers and exporters have been hit.

The crisis has had a knock on effect across the world and its impact on everyday life in Europe has deepened. In Britain, companies reported staff had been unable to get back from Easter holidays abroad and hospitals said they were cancelling some operations because surgeons were stuck in far off places. 

Bisignani called for urgent action to safely re-open airspace and called for a meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organization, the United Nations aviation body.

"We have to make decisions based on the real situation and not on theoretical models. They (the authorities) have missed opportunities to fly safely" he said.

A senior European Union official said on Sunday the current situation was not sustainable, as airlines called for a review of no-fly decrees after conducting test flights at the weekend without any apparent problems from the ash cloud.

"We cannot wait until the ash flows just disappear" said EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas, adding he hoped 50 percent of European airspace would be risk-free on Monday.

Only 5,000 flights took place in European airspace on Sunday, compared with 24,000 normally, Eurocontrol, the European aviation control agency said. Since Thursday 63,000 flights have been cancelled.

Dutch airline KLM, which has flown several test flights, said most European airspace was safe despite the plume of ash, and dispatched two commercial freight flights to Asia on Sunday.

Volcanic ash is abrasive and can strip off aerodynamic surfaces and paralyse an aircraft engine. Aircraft electronics and windshields can also be damaged.


Senior Eurocontrol official Brian Flynn said the International Civil Aviation Organisation published rules that needed to be adhered to worldwide, and guidelines to interpret at continental level. 

"One could say that the guidelines are interpreted slightly more rigorously in Europe than in the United States, when it comes to responsibilities of air traffic control agencies and pilots" he told Reuters.

Iceland said tremors from the volcano had grown more intense but that the column of ash rising from it had eased back to 4-5 km (2.5-3 miles) from as high as 11 km when it began erupting on Wednesday from below the Eyjafjallajokull glacier.

Weather experts said wind patterns meant the ash plume was not likely to move far until later in the week.

Businesses dependent on fast air freight, have felt the impact of the disruption. Kenya's flower exporters said they were already losing up to $2 million a day. Kenya accounts for about a third of flower imports into the European Union.

In export-reliant Taiwan, the island's two major international carriers China Airlines and Eva Air said they had cancelled a total of 14 cargo flights to four European airports since Thursday.

Britain said it was considering using the navy and requisitioning merchant ships to ferry home citizens stranded abroad. The response to the crisis is threatening to become an issue in the campaign for Britain's May 6 election.

The British travel agents' association ABTA said it had a rough estimate that about 150,000 Britons were stranded abroad.

"At no time in living memory has British airspace been shut down and affected this many people" said a spokeswoman.

The crisis is having an impact on international diplomacy, with Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani becoming the latest leader to abandon a visit to Europe. 

For travellers, businesses and financial markets, the biggest problem is the unpredictability of the situation.

Economists say they stand by their predictions for European growth, hoping normal air travel can resume this week.

But if European airspace were closed for months, one economist estimated lost travel and tourism revenue alone could knock 1-2 percentage points off regional growth. European growth had been predicted at 1-1.5 percent for 2010.

"That would mean a lot of European countries wouldn't get any growth this year" said Chatham House senior economic fellow Vanessa Rossi. "But the problem is it is incredibly hard to predict what will happen. Even the geologists can't tell us."

Disruption spread to Asia, where dozens of Europe-bound flights were cancelled and hotels from Beijing to Singapore strained to accommodate stranded passengers. In Tokyo, Japan Airlines said it had cancelled 44 European flights so far and All Nippon Airways put its cancellations at 27.

Many U.S. airline flights to and from Europe were cancelled.

Russian airports remained open, routing planes to North America over the North Pole to avoid the ash cloud.

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