AlJazeeraEnglish — April 16, 2010 — Several European countries have closed their airspace after a cloud of ash thrown up by a volcano in Iceland spread over the continent.
The tiny particles of ash could cause severe damage to aircraft as they could get sucked into jet engines, clog fuel systems and obscure window screens.
Volcano leaves travel plans in ashes
ABC | 17 April 2010 - By Brendan Trembath and wires
Qantas estimates flights to Europe and the UK will not be operating again until Sunday as a volcanic ash cloud blasting out of an Icelandic glacier caused massive disruptions to global air traffic.
The European air traffic agency Eurocontrol says about 60 per cent of all European flights, about 17,000 in total, will be cancelled and delays will continue into Sunday.
It is the most extensive shutdown of airspace since the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.
Europe's three biggest airports - London Heathrow, Paris Charles de Gaulle and Frankfurt - were closed by the ash, which is a threat to jet engines and pilot visibility.
Austria, Belgium, Britain, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Switzerland shut down all or most of their airspace.
Finland, France, Germany, Russia and Spain experienced major disruption, although Sweden and Ireland gradually reopened their airspace and Norway temporarily allowed some flights as the ash drifted away.
But thousands of passengers worldwide have had their travel plans trashed. Some, including British comedy legend John Cleese, have resorted to taking extreme taxi rides to travel across the continent.
In Britain travellers have been caught by surprise, turning up to airports to learn flights have been grounded.
"We've been told our flights are completely cancelled - all of the UK and Ireland - so there's very little information about what to do," one traveller said.
Some would-be flyers are confused why the airlines are being so cautious.
"I mean the plane flies at 36,000 to 40,000 feet above the clouds. As you get in you can fly below the cloud as well. So why is there a delay?" another traveller said.
But volcanic ash and aviation do not mix. In the worst cases volcanic ash can cause aircraft engines to shut down.
In 1982 a British Airways flight to Perth flew into a cloud of volcanic ash over Indonesia. The engines cut out one by one.
Eric Moody was in the cockpit.
"You couldn't see out through the windscreen. It abraded the lens of the landing lights, they didn't work. It took all the paint off and it stopped all four engines," Mr Moody said.
The flight safety officer for the British Airline Pilots' Association, Dave Reynolds, says the problem with the ash is not confined to it getting into engines.
"Under conditions where the pilots are using their instruments to fly the aircraft, they'll find themselves in the very dangerous situation of not being able to have reliable instruments," he said.
The ash cloud has spread over northern Poland too, jeopardising the travel plans of world leaders who hope to attend this weekend's funeral for president Lech Kaczynski.
He was killed in a plane crash last Saturday.
Air services have been disrupted in the Asia-Pacific region as well.
Singapore Airlines has cancelled flights out of London, Munich, Manchester and Amsterdam and services from Singapore to London.
Qantas has dropped flights to London and Frankfurt and estimates they will not be resuming until Sunday.
Dejan Milinkovic was due to fly to Frankfurt on a Qantas flight. He emailed the airline and asked what he should do.
The advice was to come to Sydney Airport.
"They said come down here. I changed my flight. That flight terminates in Singapore and now they've rebooked me on Monday," he said.
Mr Milinkovic should really be back home in Europe this weekend but cannot do much about it.
"My fiance's been waiting for me. My future mother-in-law's got a 70th birthday party surprise tomorrow so it's all put on hold."
Qantas spokesman David Epstein says the airline has had to suspend flights at short notice.
"It's been very much a fluid situation. We're in the same position as many other airlines," he said.
"We're basically at the mercy of obviously the volcano and when the UK authorities close the airspace.
"We were able to bring forward two flights we had going out of London by an hour to get them out safely.
"But unfortunately the remaining two flights that we had there, we couldn't get clearance to get them out in time... so they are remaining in the UK until flights can move from the UK."
It is not known when that will be.
Mr Epstein says they have tried to keep travellers informed, including those on flights shared with partner airlines like British Airways.
"Where people are on code-shared flights they will be informed because that's a standard procedure with British Airways and Qantas where we code-shared air flights under the joint service agreement to the UK," he said.
"We each notify the other passengers where they might be affected."
But some people have been left out of the loop.
Jean Marie Betermier was booked on an Air France flight to Singapore operated by Qantas, but he did not know it was cancelled until he came to the airport.
"I wanted to fly by tomorrow to Paris, so I just have been given the information [and] have to adapt.
Mr Betermier is the chief executive officer of IER which sells equipment for airports and airlines to help them to stay in contact with passengers.
He sees the humour in his current situation, which has left him stuck in Sydney with less than perfect information.
Mr Betermier hopes to be back in Europe by Monday, but that is looking on the bright side.