The New York Times
April 17, 2010
Airport Crisis Spreads as Ash Moves East
By STEVEN ERLANGER, JACK EWING and JULIA WERDIGIER
PARIS " As an increasingly large part of European airspace was shut down for the third day on Saturday and the towering fountain of ash from an Icelandic volcano showed no signs of letting up, questions about the long-term impact of the volcanic ash flow were being raised in a continent trying to recover from recession.
Officials expressed hopes that some air travel could resume on Sunday or Monday, but the workings of Iceland’s volcano, on Saturday at least, were too mysterious to make rational predictions. Winds pushed the particulate ash farther south and east, as far as northern Italy.
About 17,000 flights were canceled on Saturday, and travelers scrambled to find accommodation or land routes home in what is already the worst disruption in international air travel since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. All air travel in and out of the United States then was halted for three days.
While the closing of airspace has already laid waste to the immediate plans and business of industry, the arts and world leaders, the possibility that it could drag on for days, if not weeks, is raising concerns about the longer term consequences on public health, the military and the world economy.
The disaster is estimated to be costing airlines $200 million a day, but the economic damage will roll through to farms, retail establishments and nearly any other business that depends on air-cargo shipments. Fresh produce will spoil, and supermarkets in Europe, used to year-round supplies, will begin to run out.
But unless flights are disrupted for weeks, threatening factories’ supply chains, economists do not think the crisis will significantly affect gross domestic product. “The overall impact should be very limited even if the problem persists for a day or more,” Howard Archer, an economist at IHS Global Insight, told Reuters.
The impact of the ash on health is also unclear. The World Health Organization issued an advisory saying that as long as the ash remains in the upper atmosphere, there is not likely to be increased health risk. So far, analysis of the ash shows that about a quarter of the particles are smaller than 10 microns, making them more dangerous because they can penetrate more deeply into the lungs, the W.H.O. said.
In Britain, where a layer of fine dust is already covering large swaths of the country, the authorities are advising those with respiratory problems to stay indoors or wear masks out of doors.
The United States military has already been affected. Supplies for military operations in Afghanistan have been disrupted, and a spokeswoman for the Pentagon said that all medical evacuation flights from Iraq and Afghanistan to Germany, where most injured soldiers are typically treated, were being diverted directly to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
International transportation was still what the front page of the French newspaper La Parisien called “La Grande Pagaille” " the big mess.
Europe’s three largest airports " London Heathrow, Frankfurt and Paris-Charles de Gaulle " were all shut on Saturday, with officials hoping that flights could resume sometime Sunday or, more likely, Monday. Britain, France, Germany and Ireland banned most commercial air traffic for another day. Airports in northern Italy were closed on Saturday.
European airlines said that up to 70 percent of flights scheduled for Saturday were canceled as backlogs increased. Eurocontrol, which coordinates air traffic in more than 35 countries, said that some 17,000 flights were canceled Saturday out of a normal load of 22,000.
Hervé Erschler, spokesman for Air France, sounded exhausted. “We have no more information than anyone; we follow the situation in real time with the French civil aviation authorities, and it keeps evolving every hour,” he said by phone. “We don’t know exactly how many of our flights got canceled, but I can tell you that right now there is literally no traffic.”
Eurostar, which operates trains under the English Channel from London to Paris and Brussels, said that it added eight runs to its schedule again for Sunday, and that seats were going fast. Lesley Retallack, a spokeswoman for Eurostar, said the company had transported about 50,000 more people than usual in the past three days.
At least one major airline, Lufthansa, expressed frustration at what it suggested was excessive caution by the German authorities, who kept every German airport closed to air traffic for a second day. Amélie Schwierholz, a Lufthansa spokeswoman in Frankfurt, urged Germany to do its own measurements of the density of the volcanic particles that can damage jet engines, rather than relying on British data.
“It would help to look at other parameters,” she said, noting that Lufthansa had flown a large jet from Munich to Frankfurt on Saturday without passengers but without incident, although at a lower altitude than normal. Lufthansa plans other such flights in order to position planes where they will be needed later.
But German officials defended their decision, citing the need to protect passengers. “What’s more important, the safety of passengers or business?” asked Helmut Malewski, a meteorologist at the German Weather Service. “No one knows how to deal with this situation. We’re erring on the side of safety.”
Even the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, had to spend Friday night in Lisbon after returning from the United States. She managed to make it to Rome on Saturday and was expected to continue to Berlin by bus after spending the night in northern Italy, according to The Associated Press.
European finance ministers, meeting in Madrid, cut short sessions and press conferences to try to get home. Hotel cars were charging $5,600 to drive to Paris, according to Reuters, while journalists were being offered a bus ride to Brussels.
British Airways canceled all flights until Monday morning, and Asian airlines canceled flights into and out of Europe, with Cathay Pacific saying that it would stop taking such reservations for several days.
Sari Gilbert, a Rome journalist who was trying to get to Paris for a vacation, said that her flight was canceled, but that at least she got an e-mail notice so she did not have to wait in airport purgatory. She made another airline reservation and had her fingers crossed. “Here I am, having planned this trip months ago, and I have an apartment, and I’m stuck here,” she said.
The volcano, meanwhile, continued to defy predictions. Clive Oppenheimer, a volcanologist at the University of Cambridge, said the average span of a volcanic eruption is a month or two. In the case of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano, he said, scientists need to know more about how much molten rock is beneath it, but concluded, “We could see intermittent activity over the coming months.”
Magnus Tumi Gudmundsson, an Iceland geologist, told The Associated Press that the volcano was “quite vigorous” on Friday night, “causing the eruption column to grow.” Teitur Arason, a meteorologist at the Icelandic Meteorological Office, said that given the prevailing winds for the next few days, “the ash will continue to be directed toward Britain and Scandinavia.”
The ash cloud was also wreaking havoc on sporting events, concerts and even plans for Sunday’s state funeral for President Lech Kaczynski of Poland and his wife, who died last Saturday in a plane crash in Russia that killed 96 people. Heads of state and other dignitaries from around the world were expected to attend, but the Foreign Ministry reported that a number of delegations had canceled.
As of Saturday evening, President Obama was still expected to attend, according to officials at the United States Embassy in Warsaw.