Video: Airlines wary of volcanic ash threat

  1. Closed captioning of: Airlines wary of volcanic ash threat

    >>> taking fewer pills.

    >>> we are back continuing our coverage of this volcano . a lot of people have been wondering what would really happen if jets tried to fly through some of this dust, this volcanic ash ? some people have not understood this flight ban is not optional. they cannot fly through it. tonight we learn why from nbc 's tom costello .

    >> reporter: for modern jet aircraft , volcanic ash can quickly turn a flight onto a harrowing, death-defying plunge. it happened in 1989 over alaska . klm flight 867 flew through a thick volcanic ash . the plane fell from 28,000 feet to 13,000 before the captain managed to regain power and land safely.

    >> we dropped and were thrown up again.

    >> reporter: this photograph shows what happens when volcanic ash cakes an aircraft's engines . as the grains of rock, sand and glass anti-er the engine they begin to melt coating the plane 's turbines and clogging the engine. when that happens, the airflow is choked off, the engine seizes and shuts down. restarting an ash-coated engine takes tremendous skill and a good deal of luck. in 1982 , a british airways 747 crew over the indian ocean at night, never saw a volcanic ash cloud and suddenly faced a real emergency.

    >> all four engines stopped. we glided the airplane from 37,000 feet to 15,000 feet.

    >> reporter: fortunately engines cleaned out the ash. it can have a sand-blasting effect, peeling off paint, clogging passenger ventilation systems.

    >> we learned a great deal of what volcanic ash can do to jet engines .

    >> reporter: a lethal threat keeping tens of thousands of passengers grounded. tom costello , nbc news, washington .

    >>> when we come back here

updated 4/16/2010 7:20:19 PM ET 2010-04-16T23:20:19

Thick drifts of volcanic ash blanketed parts of rural Iceland on Friday as a vast, invisible plume of grit drifted over Europe, emptying the skies of planes and sending hundreds of thousands in search of hotel rooms, train tickets or rental cars.

Polish officials worried that the ash cloud could threaten the arrival of world leaders for Sunday's state funeral for President Lech Kaczynski and his wife, Maria, in the southern city of Krakow.

So far, President Barack Obama, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are among those coming and no one has canceled. Kaczynski's family insisted Friday they wanted the funeral to go forward as planned but there was no denying the ash cloud was moving south and east.

The air traffic agency Eurocontrol said almost two-thirds of Europe's flights were canceled Friday, as air space remained largely closed in Britain and across large chunks of north and central Europe.

"The skies are totally empty over northern Europe," said Brian Flynn, deputy head of Eurocontrol, adding "there will be some significant disruption of European air traffic tomorrow."

Air travel grounded
The agency said about 16,000 of Europe's usual 28,000 daily flights were canceled Friday — twice as many as were canceled a day earlier. Only about 120 trans-Atlantic flights reached European airports compared to 300 on a normal day, and about 60 flights between Asia and Europe were canceled.

The International Air Transport Association said the volcano was costing the industry at least $200 million a day.

Southern Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull glacier began erupting for the second time in a month on Wednesday, sending ash several miles into the air. Winds pushed the plume south and east across Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia and into the heart of Europe.

Gray ash settled in drifts near the glacier, swirling in the air and turning day into night. Authorities told people in the area with respiratory problems to stay indoors, and advised everyone to wear masks and protective goggles outside.

In major European cities, travel chaos reigned. Extra trains were put on in Amsterdam and lines to buy train tickets were so long that the rail company handed out free coffee.

Train operator Eurostar said it was carrying almost 50,000 passengers between London, Paris and Brussels. Thalys, a high-speed venture of the French, Belgian and German rail companies, was allowing passengers to buy tickets even if trains were fully booked.

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London taxi company Addison Lee said it had received requests for journeys to cities as far away as Paris, Milan, Amsterdam and Zurich.

The disruptions hit tourists, business travelers and dignitaries alike.

Video: European air travel delays to linger?

Ferry operators in Britain received a flurry of bookings from people desperate to cross the English Channel to France, while London taxi company Addison Lee said it had received requests for journeys to cities as far away as Paris, Milan, Amsterdam and Zurich.

Germany's Merkel had to go to Portugal rather than Berlin as she flew home from a U.S. visit. Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg managed to get a flight to Madrid from New York but was still not sure when or how he would get back home.

Shift in tactics
The military also had to adjust. Five German soldiers wounded in Afghanistan were diverted to Turkey instead of Germany, while U.S. medical evacuations for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are being flown directly from the warfronts to Washington rather than to a care facility in Germany. The U.S. military has also stopped using temporarily closed air bases in the U.K. and Germany.

Aviation experts said it was among the worst disruptions Europe has ever seen.

"We don't have many volcanoes in Europe," said David Learmount of Flight International, an aviation publication. "The wind was blowing in the wrong direction."

Ice, fire
In Iceland, torrents of water carried away chunks of ice the size of small houses on Thursday as hot gases melted the glacier over the volcano. Sections of the country's main ring road were wiped out by the flash floods.

More floods from melting waters are expected as long as the volcano keeps erupting — and in 1821, the same volcano managed to erupt for more than a year.

Small amounts of ash settled in northern Scotland and Norway, but officials said it posed little threat to health.

But Europeans were urged to stay indoors if ash started to rain down from the sky , the World Health Organization said on Friday. WHO spokesman David Epstein said the microscopic ash was potentially dangerous for people if it started to "settle" on the earth because inhaled particles can reach the lungs and cause respiratory problems.

The ash cloud, drifting between 20,000 to 30,000 feet high and invisible from the ground, initially blocked the main air flight path between the U.S. east coast and Europe. On Friday, the cloud's trajectory was taking it over northern France and Austria and into eastern and central Russia at about 25 mph.

Fearing that microscopic particles of highly abrasive ash could endanger passengers by causing aircraft engines to fail, authorities shut down air space over Britain, Ireland, France, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Belgium. That halted flights at Europe's two busiest airports — Heathrow in London and Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris — as well as dozens of other airports, 25 in France alone.

Air space restrictions were lifted, imposed or extended Friday as the cloud moved.

Flights were suspended at Frankfurt airport, Europe's third-busiest terminal, and at other German airports including Duesseldorf, Berlin, Hamburg, Munich and Cologne.

Aviation officials said the air over England would remain closed to flights until at least 1 p.m. (1200 GMT, 8 a.m. EDT) Saturday, and British Airways announced it was canceling all of its flights to and from London airports late Friday and on Saturday. Airspace restrictions in Scotland and Northern Ireland have been lifted, and Irish aviation authorities reopened airports in Dublin and Cork.

In France, airports in Paris and about 20 other locations in northern France will remain closed until at least midday Saturday.

Belgium extended its flight restrictions until late Saturday morning.

Switzerland, Slovakia, Croatia and Hungary closed their airspace, and Poland expanded its no-fly zone to most of the country, excluding Krakow.

Iceland, a nation of 320,000 people, sits on a large volcanic hot spot in the Atlantic's mid-oceanic ridge and has a history of devastating eruptions. One of the worst was the 1783 eruption of the Laki volcano, which spewed a toxic cloud over Europe, killing tens of thousands.  

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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