Europe Braces for More Canceled Flights, and Frustrations Mount

Airplane grounded by Volcanic Ash
Airplane grounded by Volcanic Ash

The work week in Europe is expected to begin with another round of aviation woes as ash from the Icelandic volcano continues to ground thousands of flights and strands millions of passengers.

Eurocontrol, the continent's version of the Federal Aviation Administration says about 5,000 flights took place on Sunday in European airspace -- about one-fifth the normal number -- but it hopes that more commercial aircraft will get airborne as the week progresses. "Southern Europe, including Spain, Portugal, the southern Balkan area, southern Italy, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey are open," according to Eurocontrol's Sunday night update, "and flights are taking place in these areas."

British Airways says all its flights to and from London airports have been canceled for Monday. Lufthansa flights, departing from the Americas and scheduled to arrive in Germany on Monday, are canceled. Air France hopes to have at least nine of its long-haul flights from locations in Africa, the Americas, the Middle East and Asia land in France, outside of the Paris airports.

And budget carrier Ryanair, one of Europe's largest airlines, has canceled many of its Northern and Central European flights until midday local time on Wednesday. A Ryanair statement says the groundings are "based on the current stable weather trends which continue to blow potentially dangerous volcanic ash across the British Isles, Scandinavia and Europe."

"Already Worse Than 9/11"

But many European governments and industries are bridling at the unprecedented closure of the continent's airspace. In Brussels on Sunday, officials for the Association of European Airlines (AEA) and Airports Council International Europe (ACI) issued a joint statement -- expressing their concerns over the groundings' effect on the aviation industry, especially since "the consequences are now expanding to the wider economy given the reliance of businesses on aviation."

"With 313 airports paralyzed at the moment, the impact is already worse than 9/11," says ACI EUROPE Director General Olivier Jankovec. "More than 6.8 million passengers have been affected so far, and European airports have lost close to €136 million [$US 183.2 million]."

AEA Secretary General Ulrich Schulte-Strathaus says test flights recently sent up by several European carriers "have revealed no irregularities at all. This confirms our requirement that other options should be deployed to determine genuine risk. For example, the FAA has a world-established process of identifying clear no-fly zones. Airlines must be able to fly where it is safe to fly and make decisions accordingly. It is what our passengers demand of us."

$200 Million a Day in Losses

The British Airline Pilots' Association (BALPA) is also calling for a reevaluation of the groundings. A statement on its website warns that the short-term financial impact of the volcanic ash cloud "could not be more serious for an industry already reeling from the economic downturn. A number of airlines are now staring bankruptcy in the face, and if their aircraft are subsequently grounded tens of thousands of people will be marooned abroad. The [UK] Government needs to step in and show the same approach it took to keeping banks afloat; if it fails to act it will find that an equally important foundation of our economy is lost."

Meanwhile, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) says its "initial and conservative" estimate is that the Icelandic volcano is costing airlines more than $200 million per day in lost revenues. And those expenses, it says, are in addition to what the carriers will incur in "added costs for rerouting of aircraft, care for stranded passengers and stranded aircraft at various ports."