By Sylvia Hui and Angela Charlton Associated Press
PARIS — The Icelandic volcano that has kept much of Europe land-bound is far from finished spitting out its grit, and offered up new mini-eruptions Saturday that raise concerns about longer-term damage to world air travel and trade.
Facing days to come under the Eyjafjallajokull volcano’s unpredictable, ashy plume, Europeans are looking at temporary airport layoffs and getting creative with flight patterns.
Air space across a swath from Britain to Ukraine was closed and set to stay that way until today or Monday in some countries, affecting airports from New Zealand to San Francisco. Millions of passengers have had plans foiled or delayed.
Activity in the Iceland volcano increased early Saturday, and showed no sign of abating.
“There doesn’t seem to be an end in sight,” Icelandic geologist Magnus Tumi Gudmundsson said. “The activity has been quite vigorous overnight, causing the eruption column to grow.”
The forecast: Bad
Southern Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano began erupting for the second time in a month Wednesday, sending ash several miles into the air.
In Iceland, torrents of water have carried away chunks of ice the size of small houses. More floods from melting waters are expected as long as the volcano keeps erupting; in 1821, the same volcano managed to erupt for more than a year.
Scientists say that because the volcano is below a glacial ice cap, the magma is being cooled quickly, causing explosions and plumes of grit that can be catastrophic to plane engines, depending on prevailing winds. The ash is toxic — the fluoride causes long-term bone damage that makes teeth fall out and bones break.
Forecasters say light prevailing winds in Europe — and large amounts of unmelted glacial ice above the volcano — mean that the situation is unlikely to change quickly.
“Currently the U.K. and much of Europe is under the influence of high pressure, which means winds are relatively light and the dispersal of the cloud is slow,” said Graeme Leitch, a meteorologist at Britain’s National Weather Service. “We don’t expect a great deal of change over the next few days.”
A Dutch geologist who is in Iceland observing the volcano, Edwin Zanen, described the scene near the volcano: “We’re at 25 kilometers (16 miles) distance from the crater now. We’re looking at a sun-soaked ice shelf, and above it is looming a cloud of ashes of oh, 4 to 5 kilometers (2.5 to 3 miles) high. There are lightening flashes in it. It’s a real inferno we’re looking at.”
Aviation tries to adjust
With the prospect of days under the cloud of ash, pilots and aviation officials sought to dodge the dangerous grit by adjusting altitude levels.
Lufthansa flew 10 empty planes to Frankfurt from Munich on Saturday in order to have them in the right place when the restrictions are lifted, an airline spokesman said. The planes flew at about 9,843 feet, well below usual altitude.
Also in Germany, KLM is carrying out a test flight from Schiphol to Dusseldorf at that height or lower, hoping for approval to carry out more low-altitude flights in Europe if the ash problem continues.
The Swiss Federal Office of Civil Aviation began allowing flights Saturday above Swiss air space as long as the aircraft were at least at 36,000 feet, above the ash cloud. It also allowed flights at lower altitudes under visual flight rules.
The aviation industry, already reeling from a punishing period, is facing at least $200 million in losses every day, according to the International Air Transport Association.
Scandinavian airline operator SAS AB said it has given notice of a temporary layoff of up to 2,500 ground service staff in Norway as a result of the flight disruptions. Budget airline Norwegian ASA is holding meetings with unions Monday to discuss potential temporary layoffs, spokeswoman Asta Braathen said.
Stranded travelers are suffering
Around the world, anxious passengers have told stories of missed weddings, business deals and holidays because of the ominous plume. Stranded passengers reported the delays were causing financial hardships. Some had to check out of hotels and sleep in airports.
“It’s like a refugee camp,” said Rhiannon Thomas, of Birmingham, England, describing the scene at New York’s Kennedy Airport.
Her family spent the night at the airport Friday, and may be there for days before they can get a flight home.
“At least we got beds,” said Thomas’ mother, Pat, referring to the hundreds of narrow blue cots brought in to JFK’s Terminal 4. “Some people slept on cardboard.”