Image: Big Ben, London
LEON NEAL  /  AFP - Getty Images
A passenger jet flies past Big Ben in central London. Europe's airspace reopened for business as Iceland's volcano lost its fury Wednesday, leaving passengers scrambling to get home and recriminations flying over the 1.7 billion dollar cost of the crisis.
By
updated 4/23/2010 11:26:17 AM ET 2010-04-23T15:26:17

The airspace over Europe is almost completely free of any remnants of the volcanic ash cloud that caused massive flight disruptions over the past week, the European air traffic agency said Friday.

Eurocontrol said the ash cloud is restricted to an area between Iceland and the northwestern tip of Scotland.

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

The small airports at Kirkwall, Wick, Inverness and Stornoway in northern Scotland were also closed because of ash.

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

Airliners flying between the United States and Europe were given flight paths above the area of the ash cloud. At over 30,000 feet (9,000 meters), the planes were far above the no-fly zone, which extends from the surface to 20,000 feet (6,000 meters).

Britain's Royal Air Force said it hoped to resume training flights on Typhoon military fighter jets Friday after grounding them for inspection Thursday when ash was found in an engine.

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 aviation crisis that began with an April 14 volcanic eruption in Iceland left millions of passengers in limbo and sparked calls for a wholesale reform of Europe's air traffic system.

Unexpected luxury
Some travelers got a break. Authorities chartered a luxury cruise ship — the Celebrity Eclipse — to pick up 2,200 tourists in the northern Spanish port of Bilbao on Thursday and bring them back to England. A British Royal Navy ship also arrived in Portsmouth, southern England, carrying 440 troops coming home from Afghanistan and 280 civilians back from Santander, Spain.

Countries and airlines pitched in to resolve the crisis.

Spain, which was mostly open during the crisis, arranged for more than 600 special flights to help move an estimated 90,000 stranded passengers out over the past three days.

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Slideshow: Eruption in Iceland KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and its partners were expanding capacity on high-traffic routes from Amsterdam's Schiphol airport in hopes of decreasing the backlog. The routes included New York, San Francisco, Atlanta, Sao Paolo, Dubai, Cairo, Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei and Osaka.

In Germany, Frankfurt and Munich airports reported about 90 percent of flights operating. Fraport AG, which operates Frankfurt International Airport — Europe's third-busiest — said it would waive parking charges for planes stuck there over the last week.

All of British airspace was open and major airports such as London's Heathrow — Europe's busiest — were running nearly full schedules. British Airways said all of its flights from London's Gatwick and City airports would take off, as well as the "vast majority" from Heathrow.

Still, flights around Britain posed potential ash ingestion problems. The ministry of defense said training flights by Typhoon fighters were suspended Thursday after ash was found in one jet's engine.

It was not immediately clear where the flight was conducted. But military jets are more susceptible to volcanic ash than civilian planes because their engines operate at higher temperatures due to more extreme performance requirements. That makes it more likely the ash will melt inside the engine and cause disruptions.

The U.S. Air Force said normal flights resumed at its bases in Britain, Italy and Germany.

Many trans-Atlantic planes between the United States and Europe were assigned flight paths above the ash cloud that still hovered east of Iceland, flying at over 35,000 feet (10,670 meters) high.

Red magma thrashed about
Scientists at Iceland's meteorological office said the Eyjafjallajokull volcano produced very little ash Thursday but remained quite active, with magma boiling in the crater. The plume of ash was below 10,000 feet (3 kilometers) and winds were not expected to take it over 20,000 feet.

Geophysicist Steinunn Jakobsdottir said volcanic ash was expected to fall south and southwest of the crater in southern Iceland in the coming days but it would not disrupt air travel between Europe and North America.

The volcano threw up magma chunks the size of cars and sent powerful shock waves into the air as an Associated Press reporter, photographer and television crew flew over it Wednesday in a helicopter.

In a black crater in the middle of a glacier, red magma thrashed about, propelling steaming blobs of lava onto the surrounding ice. Charges of gas — which surge from deep inside the mountain through the magma and cause tremors 15 miles (25 kilometers) away — exploded occasionally in a molten rock fireworks show.

The air around the volcano shivered with a constant, menacing growl. Bolts of lightning shot through the fumes and an eerie glow pervaded the pit of fire.

In response to the flight disruptions, Eurocontrol — the Brussels-based intergovernmental agency comprising 38 nations — was assembling a team of experts to analyze the lessons of the airspace closure,

Video: European flights cleared for takeoff EU spokeswoman Helen Kearns said Thursday the crisis had exposed serious flaws in the continent-wide air traffic control system. "Consumers and businesses have paid a high price over the past few days for a fragmented patchwork of air spaces," she said.

The EU has 27 national air traffic control networks, 60 air traffic centers and hundreds of approach centers and towers. The airspace is a jigsaw puzzle of more than 650 sectors. French traffic controllers have gone on strike to protect their lucrative jobs.

In contrast, the U.S. air traffic management system manages twice the number of EU flights for a similar cost but uses only about 20 control centers.

Defending their decisions
European governments and civil aviation authorities have defended their decisions to ground fleets and close the skies — and later to reopen them — against heated accusations by airline chiefs that the decisions were based on flawed data or unsubstantiated fears.

The International Air Transport Association has called on the EU to quickly compensate airlines for lost revenue, much like the U.S. government did following the 9/11 terror attacks.

IATA also demanded that the EU's strict passenger rights rules — which force airlines to pay for hotels and meals for routine flight delays — be relaxed to reflect the extraordinary nature of the ash crisis.

Budget airline Ryanair did a surprise U-turn Thursday and agreed to pay for stranded customers' hotel and food bills after being faced with huge EU fines if it did not.

Chief executive Michael O'Leary has called the EU travel rights rules "absurd" and discriminatory against airlines because ferry, rail and bus companies only have to pay for the price of a passenger's ticket.

Associated Press writers Robert Wielaard in Brussels, Malin Rising in Stockholm, Matt Moore in Berlin, and Jennifer Quinn and Paisley Dodds in London also contributed to this report.

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

Video: Scandinavian flights still hampered by ash

  1. Closed captioning of: Scandinavian flights still hampered by ash

    >>> the news this morning, more flight disruptions today over parts of europe because of that volcano in iceland . officials closed airspace in parts of norway and sweding this morning because of the ash. most flights however are operating elsewhere. chris jansing is still in iceland for us. good morning.

    >> reporter: good morning, ann . experts tell us that we may see some small problems with ash ebb and flow in the coming days, but overall they're convinced that the worst is definitely over. to get a sense of what the future might bring, we went up in a helicopter yesterday to get a look down inside that volcano . for a volcano that's supposed to be weakening, eyjafjallajoekul is still putting on a powerful show.

    >> wow. you hear it?

    >> reporter: with volcanologist as our guide, one of iceland 's most experienced pilots flew us right up to the rim.

    >> it can really hit the helicopter and it has shaken me up a bit.

    >> yeah, so let's not go too close.

    >> reporter: unrelenting explosions jolting the chopper and throwing out huge chunks of magma.

    >> some of those chunks are the size of the helicopter. we have nothing for scale for nobody wants to go down there.

    >> reporter: by all scientific measures, eyjafjallajoekul is significantly weaker than it was on saturday. then the volcanic plume was three times as high and throwing out an astonishing 750 tons of ash every second, an explosive mixture of magma and water. now it's just a tenth of that. for more evidence, we landed on the glacier itself just over the ridge from the crater, getting a rare, very close look.

    >> reporter: we've actually been able to see some bursts of red here which is lava, which is exactly what scientists want to see. that means less ash is being produced.

    >> wow! look at these rocks!

    >> they're enormous! there is amazing!

    >> reporter: that wild ride actually more evidence that eyjafjallajoekul's power is fading. she told me in fact if we'd have flown on saturday where we flew yesterday we would have been killed. kind after stark way of illustrating that the power of eyjafjallajoekul is on the wane zpp we're very glad you didn't fly on saturday. thank you, chris jansing .

    >>> in other news this morning,

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