Image: Robert and Barbara Breault
Elise Amendola  /  AP
Robert Breault and his wife, Barbara, of Coventry, R.I. have a snack inside the international terminal at Logan International Airport in Boston on April 15, after their flight to London was cancelled due to a large ash cloud from a volcanic eruption in Iceland.
By
updated 4/15/2010 7:58:57 PM ET 2010-04-15T23:58:57

A volcanic ash cloud that shut down airports and tied up air traffic across Europe could turn into a long, costly headache for businesses, airlines and tourists in the United States.

The ash spewed by an eruption in Iceland forced airlines to cancel flights and redirect planes around the ash. Those diversions caused jetliners to burn more fuel and created delays in the air-cargo business that could quickly run into tens of millions of dollars.

The slowdown could affect everything from package shipments to business meetings and long-planned vacations.

"The costs could be extraordinary," said Jeffrey Price, an aviation professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver.

Many in the travel industry on Thursday weren't asking if they would be affected — but how badly.

"This is the ultimate act of God," said Chicago-based transportation expert Joseph Schwieterman. "It's hard to imagine a weather scenario that would disrupt the entire Atlantic flight system like this."

Anxious clients called Boston-based Garber Travel, one of New England's biggest travel agencies, asking how they might rearrange flights. But for some travelers bound for Europe, it was too late.

The flight cancellations jeopardized a $6,000 trip planned for more than six months by Robert and Barbara Breault of Coventry, R.I.

Barbara, an avid gardener, had scheduled a vacation that coincided with tulip bloomings in the Netherlands. But their outbound flight Thursday evening from Boston's Logan Airport to London Heathrow was marked "See agent."

"It's not supposed to do this," Barbara said with a laugh. "I had already planned the whole thing."

She had paid not only for the airline tickets, but supplemental charges for window seats and for a private guide, as well as a cruise through Holland's famed canals dubbed the "Tulip Festival Cruise."

On an average day, U.S. airlines operate about 340 flights to and from Europe, according to the Air Transport Association. On Thursday, American carriers canceled at least 100 of those flights because of the ash.

An FAA spokeswoman said the cancellations affected at least 10 countries: England, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Sweden, United Arab Emirates, Finland, France, Belgium and Denmark.

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The FAA issued an order holding flights destined for the United Kingdom on the ground. Other flights to and from Europe were being diverted around British airspace, which has been closed until 4 a.m. EDT Friday.

Slideshow: Eruption in Iceland That didn't bode well for two British friends stranded at New York's Kennedy Airport hotel after their flight was canceled.

"I just want to go home now," said 23-year-old Grace Schofield, of Yorkshire, England, whose trip was also disrupted by emergency surgery for appendicitis. "I can only do so much walking around the city before I have to rest."

For one British man trying to make it back to London, the consequences were deeply emotional.

"It was my grandmother's funeral tomorrow so I am going to miss that," said Gary Alderson, who was also at the airport hotel.

Elsewhere, flight cancelations undermined pending business deals.

Video: Airspace invaded Mark Kiefer, a Boston-based aviation industry consultant, said he initially planned to send a proposal to a company north of Amsterdam by air courier to meet a Monday deadline.

"They told us that they wouldn't take a package tomorrow, and they wouldn't guarantee you Monday," Kiefer said. Instead, he planned to e-mail the proposal to colleagues in The Hague, have them print it out and then drive about an hour to hand-deliver the document.

Air cargo companies conceded they were scrambling to cope.

FedEx, the world's second-largest package-delivery company, started rerouting flights bound for Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris. It also moved some packages by truck instead of air.

Company spokesman Steve Barber could not specify what types of shipments were most affected.

Although rare, flight problems caused by volcanic ash are not unheard of. The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington state grounded hundreds of flights for days.

But ironically, the airlines' decision to reduce their schedules to ensure that planes are full could work against them as they scramble to find available seats on alternative flights.

"These high-load factors can make disruptions like this into full-scale disasters — where passengers are stranded for days," Schwieterman said. "Ten years ago, the airline took just a few days to get back to normal. Now, it can take longer."

Routing systems have also become highly sophisticated, with airlines planning the most efficient routes days and weeks in advance.

"The system works great until there is irregular operation, and then everything unravels," Schwieterman said. "In situations like this, the efficiency of the system comes back to haunt them."

A spokeswoman for American Airlines, Mary Frances Fagan, expressed confidence the company could deal successfully with the ash despite the cancellation of 34 flights to airports in London, Manchester, Brussels, Dublin and Paris by Thursday afternoon.

She said airlines are well-versed in dealing with air traffic disruptions caused by weather, hurricanes or even earthquakes.

"Are there specific contingency plans for volcanic ash? I can't say there's a separate chapter in our crisis book, but we deal with Mother Nature day by day all the time," she said.

Associated Press writers Samantha Bomkamp in New York, David Koenig in Dallas, Joan Lowy in Washington, D.C., Glen Johnson in Boston, Ray Henry in Atlanta, Adam Pemble in New York, and David Martin in Newark also contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Ash cloud likely to cancel some U.S. flights

  1. Closed captioning of: Ash cloud likely to cancel some U.S. flights

    >>> now.

    >>> good evening . tonight , volcanic ash caused the worse disruption in air travel since 9/11. it bottled up flying across the atlantic and paralyzed much of europe . tonight travelers are standed in all on six continents. this is the plume from the air. a massive cloud of ash following the winds and weather patterns right across the atlantic . the same route the planes fly. here's what happened. last night a new vent opened and exploded in an already-smoldering volcano under the ice cap in iceland . this is what it did to air travel in europe from 3:00 a.m . to noon. all the flights landed and just ground to a halt. more than 4,000 flights have been canceled. many from the u.s. to europe , but most of them in europe itself. by tonight , the ash cloud we're told will cover the entire united kingdom . our own dawna friesen is at london heathrow tonight , a quiet place. good evening .

    >> reporter: very quiet, brian . good evening . europe has some of the most congested air space in the world . it's never seen a disruption like this. flights in and out of several countries including britain are grounded. here at heathrow airport alone, 1,000 flights canceled today. this is the cause of the chaos. a vast cloud of ash spewing from a volcano in iceland , reaching over 30,000 feet. drifting across the north atlantic and parts of europe , a potentially deadly menace to any aircraft flying into it. all over europe , airports have turned into parking lots . in great britain , ireland, denmark, sweden, belgium, poland , all flights grounded. partial closures in norway, finland, france, switzerland and germany. britain 's prime minister gordon brown said there was no choice .

    >> it's important that everybody's safety comes first.

    >> reporter: across the world , travel for hundreds of thousands have been disrupted.

    >> we can totally accept why we're not flying. it's not like we're sitting here angry.

    >> reporter: iceland is a forbidding landscape of fire and ice . this particular hot spot became active in march and subsided until blasting through an ice cap yesterday. researchers flying as close as they can peer into the heart of it. molten rock surging up. it's thought to have popped the ice like a champagne cork, creating these massive plumes, a mix of rock, sand and glass.

    >> if you can imagine throwing a bucketful of beach sand into the engine of a big airport, you can imagine it's not going to do the airplane any good.

    >> reporter: it's like a supersonic sandstorm, too fine for a plane 's radar to pick up, but capable of jamming engines.

    >> it will score the rapidly-turning engine tour pines and corrupt our system and the atmosphere in the airplane.

    >> reporter: it happened in 1982 . the pilot of a british airways jumbo didn't have a clue he'd flown into a cloud of volcanic ash over the indian ocean , causing all four engines to fail.

    >> if there is danger flying anywhere near this ash, the authorities are dead right doing what they are doing.

    >> reporter: the weather forecast shows no change in wind patterns for the next few days.

    >> we are locked into that same pattern. we have that northwest to southeast flow. if we continue getting eruptions and we keep that wind flow exactly the same, the exact same airs are going to get hard hit.

    >> reporter: on british tv this is the travel warning.

    >> the latest forecast shows this morning the ash cloud spread to most of the country . by now, few areas are clear . the cloud is reaching across the channel. by 1:00 a.m ., all major airports will be covered. even by 7:00 in the morning, they still won't be clear . don't bank on flying tomorrow.

    >> reporter: in iceland , the ash has turned day into night . emergency officials are evacuating hundreds of people. geophysicists say the eruption is gaining strength. tonight european aviation officials are predicting half of all transatlantic flights tomorrow may be grounded. not too many expected to take off across europe either.

    >> dawna friesen on a big story on both sides of the atlantic tonight . thanks.

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