Volcanic ash lingers, but European airports begin to reopen
Glimmers of hope for stranded travelers began appearing Monday with the reopening of scattered European airports and the announcement that one of Europe’s biggest airlines would resume some intercontinental flights.
Despite lingering ash in the skies from the Icelandic volcano, aviation authorities said that gaps in the cloud of grit in some places would allow for some movement in the air.
Airspace across much of northern Europe remained closed Monday, but Britain announced that Scottish airspace would reopen Tuesday morning after five days of almost continuous closure. Lufthansa Airlines, based in Germany, said it had received permission to run 50 flights from Asia, the Americas and the Middle East to three German airports.
Scandinavian nations also allowed a handful of intercontinental flights.
The easing of restrictions came amid mounting pressure from airlines to reopen certain flight corridors, if not all of European airspace. Faced with severe economic losses, airline and airport executives have become increasingly critical of aviation authorities, accusing them of overreacting to the plume of ash and dust and unnecessarily prolonging the lockdown on air travel.
Several European airlines have conducted test flights without incident in the last two days, which executives say is proof that at least some flights could take place safely.
“The analysis we have done so far, alongside that from other airlines’ trial flights, provides fresh evidence that the current blanket restrictions on airspace are unnecessary,” British Airways Chief Executive Willie Walsh said Monday.
Also Monday, the British government announced that it would dispatch navy warships to bring home Britons prevented from flying home from the European mainland by the cloud of volcanic ash.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the navy would send two ships to pick up civilians from ports along the English Channel and a third to Spain to bring back British troops trying to return from duty in Afghanistan.
It was unclear, however, how quickly the evacuation could be mounted, given the logistics of putting the ships into action and working out arrangements with border authorities in Britain, France and Spain.
“I’m very proud of what British people have done dealing with the most difficult of circumstances, often stranded in very difficult areas, and we are determined to do everything that we can to help,” Brown told reporters Monday morning at 10 Downing St., the prime minister’s official residence.
Brown also said he was in contact with the government of Spain about turning airports in that southern country, which have been largely unaffected by the layer of ash, into a hub for Britons trying to get home. From Spain, they could return to Britain by ship or by rail via France, through the Channel tunnel.