E.U. poised to resume limited air traffic, France says

  • Mon Apr 19th, 2010 9:26am
  • News

By Jill Lawless and Melissa Eddy Associated Press

PARIS — France says European countries can gradually resume air traffic in designated “caution zones.”

The prime minister’s office says France — after a meeting of European transport ministers — is among the European countries whose air space will be opened to some air travel under tight security precautions.

Earlier, Germany’s aviation authority broke the flight deadlock today, granting Lufthansa an exemption to fly 50 long-haul planes carrying 15,000 passengers back home below the cloud of volcanic ash hanging over Europe.

Britain chimed in with more good news, saying flight restrictions over Scottish airspace will be lifted at 7 a.m. local time Tuesday morning (0600 GMT, 2 a.m. EDT) and other British airports could reopen later that day as well. The government also sent Royal Navy warships to rescue those marooned across the Channel by flight cancelations.

As airline losses spiraled over $1 billion, the aviation industry blasted European officials, claiming there was “no coordination and no leadership” in the crisis that shut down most European airports for a fifth day.

Eurocontrol, the air traffic agency in Brussels, said less than one-third of flights in Europe were taking off today — between 8,000 and 9,000 of the continent’s 28,000 scheduled flights. Airports in southern Europe were open, however, and Spain offered to become an emergency hub for the whole continent.

Lufthansa spokesman Jan Baerwald said the planes, scattered around the world, would start getting ready “right now.” The first flights will be from the Far East, with others following from Africa and North America.

The planes will fly to Frankfurt, Munich and Duesseldorf under visual flight rules, he said, noting that air traffic control is still keeping its restrictions on German airspace.

“We have an exception that allows us to fly so-called visual flight rules,” he said.

Visual flight rules allow a pilot to fly the airplane without reference to instruments, if weather conditions are good enough so the pilot can see landmarks and avoid any other aircraft. Those flights need to be under 18,000 feet, lower than usual altitude for commercial traffic.

The exception could help Lufthansa bounce back quicker from the European airport lockdown debacle than other airlines.

In Iceland, meteorologists said eruptions from the volcano were weakening and the ash was no longer rising to a height where it would endanger large commercial aircraft. British Transport Secretary Andrew Adonis confirmed there was been a “dramatic reduction in volcanic activity.”

Video still showed smoke billowing into the air from the volcano under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier.

Hundreds of thousands of passengers have been stranded around the world since the volcano in southern Iceland begun erupting Wednesday for the second time in a month. Passengers in Asia, frustrated over sleeping on airport floors for days and running out of money, staged protests at airport counters.

European airlines are seeking financial compensation for a crisis that is costing the industry at least $200 million a day — and by some industry estimates up to $300 million a day. The British Airways chief said test flights had proven that flying was safe.

Several airlines have run flights over the last few days, and none reported problems or damage, prompting some airline officials to question whether governments had overreacted to concerns that the microscopic particles of ash could shut down jet engines.