Europe seeks new air traffic control system

BRUSSELS — The European Union speeded up action on a sweeping reform of its air traffic control system today after a crisis over volcanic ash turned much of the continent into a no-fly zone for days.

“The worst is now over, but there is a huge amount of work to be done to deal with crisis management,” EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas told reporters.

Germany invited aviation experts, EU officials and industry representatives to Berlin on Tuesday to discuss setting standards for air travel, and Spain — which holds the EU’s rotating presidency — said EU transport ministers would meet May 4 in Brussels for talks on a unified European airspace.

European airspace today was almost completely free of volcanic ash from Iceland, according to Eurocontrol, the air traffic agency. All of British airspace was available after four small airports in Scotland reopened.

But for the first time since the April 14 eruption, Iceland’s major international airport was closed after shifting winds blew the ash cloud toward the capital of Reykjavik, west of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano. Trans-Atlantic flights on Icelandair that usually stop in Iceland were being rerouted through Glasgow in Scotland.

Flights across the rest of Europe were proceeding normally, said Eurocontrol spokeswoman Kyla Evans. About 29,000 flights were scheduled.

A week of airspace closures caused by the ash threat to planes created the worst breakdown in civil aviation in Europe since World War II. More than 100,000 flights were canceled and airlines are on track to lose over $2 billion.

The “Single European Sky” project was supposed to have begun in 2012, but Kallas said the latest crisis showed that “we cannot afford to wait that long.”

“The absence of a single European regulator for air traffic control made it very difficult to respond to this crisis. We needed a fast, coordinated European response …. instead we had a fragmented patchwork of 27 national airspaces,” Kallas said.

The EU has 27 national air traffic control networks, 60 air traffic centers and hundreds of approach centers and towers. In contrast, the United States manages twice the number of flights for a similar cost using only about 20 control centers.

“Without a central regulator, Europe was operating with one hand tied behind its back,” he said.

A seamless EU air navigation system would straighten out Europe’s zigzag air routes to reduce fuel burn, and beef up the role of the European Air Safety Agency that now deals largely with planes’ airworthiness. It would enable a single command center to divert traffic and to provide detailed data to national air traffic centers.

Up until now, EU governments have wanted to keep full sovereignty over their airspaces for security reasons. Some employees have also fought the new program — French air traffic controllers, fearing salary cuts and job losses, have gone on strike over the issue.

In Iceland, the volcano was active today but its ash production was minimal.

Magnus Tumi Gudmundsson, a geophysicist at the University of Iceland, said the volcano was only spewing 10-20 metric tons of ash a second into the air, compared to 750 tons a second at the peak of the eruption.

“The threat from the volcano is now local. It is not hemispherical,” he told The Associated Press. “It is mostly a steam plume. It is carrying only a small fraction of what it was before.”

Still he said the eruption was continuing and scientists were monitoring it closely.

“I think we have seen the worst. The peak of the eruption over, but how long it will linger on is impossible to tell,” he said.

France made euro1 million ($1.3 million) available in aid to stranded French travelers to help cover expenses due to ash-related delays. At least 20,000 French citizens were still stranded in foreign airports Friday, primarily in the United States and east Asia.

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