Airspace over Northern Europe to open Tuesday

Europe’s ash-filled skies have cracked open slightly to allow more stranded travelers to fly home, but aviation authorities warned Monday that the reprieve could prove temporary with the Icelandic volcano still erupting.

Many of the continent’s biggest airports remained closed at the start of the new workweek. But European transport officials, under intense pressure from airlines to ease the blanket ban on flights over most of Northern Europe, announced that some services could resume Tuesday in areas where the threat posed to aircraft by floating ash was lower.

British officials said enough grit and dust had dispersed over Scotland for airspace there to reopen Tuesday morning, but a new cloud of volcanic ash could cause that to change. The French government announced that it would begin loosening restrictions on some flights to Paris.

And 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, carrying a total of 15,000 passengers.

That would still leave hundreds of thousands of travelers marooned around the world, some since Thursday, when the ash and glass emitted by the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland began creeping east. But the limited flights offered glimmers of hope that some of their ordeals might soon come to an end.

Aviation officials said the situation was fluid and would be constantly reevaluated as winds shift and as the volcano continues to blast tiny particles of ash and glass into the atmosphere.

“There cannot be any compromise on safety,” said Siim Kallas, the European Commission’s vice president for transport. “All our assessments … are based on expert decisions, decisions of independent bodies and science.”

Officials said the slight relaxing of restrictions was due to the ash having dissipated in some places and not to any lobbying by the airline industry.

But with their companies hemorrhaging money, airline executives and trade groups have become increasingly vociferous in the last two days about what they see as an exaggerated response by aviation authorities to the dangers posed by the ash cloud.

Airlines in Britain, France, Germany and the Netherlands have conducted their own test flights to gauge conditions and declared that their aircraft suffered no damage.

“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,” said British Airways CEO Willie Walsh, who participated Sunday in a test flight from London to Cardiff, Wales. “Our assessment is that the risk has been minimal and can be managed by alternative procedures to maintain the highest [safety] standards.”

British Airways said it hoped to resume some flights in and out of London starting Tuesday evening. Forecasts had suggested that winds were finally breaking up the vast layer of volcanic discharge over Northern Europe and that Eyjafjallajokull’s continued eruptions were no longer sending ash and dust to such high altitudes.

But air traffic regulators said a new pall of volcanic ash appeared to be heading from Iceland toward Britain, and that airspace could be sealed off again.

Giovanni Bisignani, head of the International Air Transport Assn., lambasted European officials for a lack of coordination and leadership on a crisis that was costing the airline industry as much as $200 million a day. He criticized European aviation officials’ methods of calculating risk from the ash, saying they were based on theoretical models rather than facts.

“This is not an acceptable system, particularly when the consequences for safety and the economy are so large,” Bisignani said.

Some European airline executives are now raising the possibility of asking for financial bailouts from their governments, as happened after the closure of U.S. airspace following the Sept. 11 attacks.

Businesses around the world have suffered losses from the lockdown on European airspace, from flower and fruit producers in Africa and Asia to German automotive companies unable to export parts. FedEx and other package-delivery services have suspended their next-day promises.

Here in Britain, meanwhile, the government announced that it would dispatch three naval warships to bring home Britons from the European mainland, including soldiers stuck in Spain after a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Times staff writer Janet Stobart contributed to this report.