Airlines insist on flight resumption - UPDATED

Airline industry group called for urgent steps to reopen airspace after five days of closures that have cost airlines $250 million a day.

Airlines insist on flight resumption - UPDATED

Airline industry group IATA called on Monday for steps to reopen European airspace shut down by a volcanic ash cloud and the European Commission said it may approve compensation for airlines losing $250 million a day.

IATA head Giovanni Bisignani criticised authorities in Europe who he said had missed opportunities to fly "safely", as officials said they expected less than a third of flights to operate in Europe on Monday, the fifth day of disruption.

"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 Sept. 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.

Airline shares fell in early trade on Monday and European Union competition chief Joaquin Almunia said the EU Commission is considering easing stringent rules for state aid to airlines.

"I am looking carefully at what we did after Sept. 11. We can use similar instruments. We are indeed facing exceptional circumstances," he said.

British Airways, which says it has lost 15-20 million pounds ($22-30 million) a day in passenger and freight revenue said it had asked the EU and national governments for compensation.

European transport ministers are due to discuss the airspace crisis at 1300 GMT after a meeting of the European aviation control agency Eurocontrol, which said on Monday it expected between 8,000 and 9,000 flights to operate in Europe.

That would represent just 30 percent of normal flight traffic, compared to earlier predictions by European Union officials that half of flights could be operating on Monday.

Over the weekend only a fifth of normal flights were flown and figures released by Eurocontrol show 80,000 fewer flights in Europe since Thursday compared to the same period a week ago.

Austria opened its airports on Monday but other countries kept no-fly decrees in place. Italy closed its northern airspace after briefly opening it on Monday.

Millions of passengers have been stranded by the closures, and trade has also been hit.

Businesses dependent on fast air freight felt the early 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.

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 abroad.

Some food suppliers were also feeling the effects.

"We are running short of tuna from Indian Ocean, victoria perch from Africa, basil from Cyprus and other fresh herbs from Israel, lobster from Canada and green asparagus from California," said Thomas Kosmidis, at Frankfurt wholesaler Venos, which supplies mainly restaurants.

Britain's official weather forecaster the Met Office released a graphic predicting little movement of the ash plume over Europe on Monday, but saw it spreading towards the eastern seaboard of North America.

"The wind flow is staying very much the same through the day. Probably for the next three or four days the wind regime is not going to change terribly much," a Met Office spokesman said.

Airlines have called for a review of no-fly decrees after conducting test flights at the weekend without any apparent problems from the ash cloud.

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.

But glass build-up was found in an engine of a NATO F-16 fighter plane, underscoring the dangers to aircraft flying through the ash cloud, a senior U.S. official said on Monday.

Volcanic ash is abrasive and can strip off aerodynamic surfaces. In high temperatures of an engine turbine, fragments of ash can turn to molten glass and paralyse the engine. Aircraft electronics and windshields can also be damaged.

Less ash from volcano

Iceland's Meteorological Office said the erupting volcano appeared to be spewing more steam and less ash into the sky.

"There is at least some lava bursting up from the craters and landing on the ice," geologist Hjorleifur Sveinbjornsson said. "The colour of the steam is brown but also quite white so it is more like water vapourising".

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Britain would deploy three Royal Naval ships including an aircraft carrier to bring home citizens. British travel agents' association ABTA said it estimated 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. A joint IMF and European Union mission to Greece was also delayed.

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.

In Asia, dozens of Europe-bound flights were cancelled and hotels from Beijing to Singapore strained to accommodate stranded passengers.

"My flight was set to fly today, but it has been cancelled. I will miss my exams and I'm worried," said student Wang Chuan, waiting at Beijing airport for a flight to university in London.

"And it's not safe to fly after a volcanic eruption, so we will have to wait until the ash has cleared up. There is nothing I can do about my exams. I will miss them," said Wang.


Reuters

Last Mod: 20 Nisan 2010, 13:38
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