Video: Iceland volcano ash cuts Obama's trip short

  1. Transcript of: Iceland volcano ash cuts Obama's trip short

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor (Joplin, Missouri): We promised you some other news tonight. Look what's happening again in Iceland . Remember what we went through last year with the volcano? One more time the plumes of smoke and ash up into the atmosphere. You know where it goes? It drifts over the Atlantic to Europe. It will and already has disrupted air travel . It has, in fact, forced President Obama to change his travel plans. He's leaving Ireland early. He spent the day there today, part of this long planned multi-day European trip. He got a huge welcome, crowd easily 30,000 large, and indulged in an age-old tradition every visitor to Dublin is welcome to do it, a pint of Guinness at

updated 5/23/2011 9:03:47 PM ET 2011-05-24T01:03:47

A dense ash cloud from an Icelandic volcano blew toward Scotland on Monday, causing airlines to cancel flights, forcing President Barack Obama to shorten a visit to Ireland, and raising fears of a repeat of last year's huge travel disruptions in Europe that stranded millions of passengers.

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Britain's Civil Aviation Authority said it appears that ash from the Grimsvotn volcano could reach Scottish airspace as early as Tuesday and affect other parts of the U.K. and Ireland later in the week.

British Airways suspended all its flights for Tuesday morning between London and Scotland, while Dutch carrier KLM and Easyjet canceled flights to and from Scotland and northern England at the same time. Two domestic airlines also announced flight disruptions.

Still, authorities say they don't expect the kind of massive grounding of flights that followed last year's eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland because systems and procedures have been improved since then and the cloud is currently not expected to move over continental Europe.

Pilots unions, however, expressed concerns that the ash could still be dangerous.

Obama, who had been scheduled to spend Monday night in Ireland, was forced to fly to London early because of the ash cloud. Last year's Icelandic eruption also forced a change in his schedule then, causing him to cancel a trip to Poland.

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Glasgow-based regional airline Loganair canceled 36 flights scheduled for Tuesday morning. It said its flights between Scottish islands would be unaffected. Another small airline, Eastern Airways, which is based in northern England, also canceled all flights to and from Scotland on Tuesday.

"Our No. 1 priority is to ensure the safety of people both onboard aircraft and on the ground," said Andrew Haines, chief executive of the CAA. "We can't rule out disruption, but the new arrangements that have been put in place since last year's ash cloud mean the aviation sector is better prepared and will help to reduce any disruption in the event that volcanic ash affects U.K. airspace."

Many airlines said authorities last year overestimated the danger to planes and overreacted by closing airspace for five days amid fears that the abrasive ash could cause engines to stall.

CAA spokesman Jonathan Nicholson said authorities this time would give airlines information about the location and density of ash clouds. Any airline that wanted to fly would have to present a safety report to aviation authorities in order to be allowed to fly.

He said most British airlines had permission to fly through medium-density ash clouds, but none had asked for permission to fly through high-density clouds, classified as having over 4,000 micrograms of ash per cubic meter.

Even at that concentration of volcanic ash, experts said the air would not look much different from airspace unaffected by the ash, but officials say the tiny particles in the ash can sandblast windows and stop jet engines.

The international pilots' federation warned that it believed the cloud still presented a potential danger to commercial aircraft despite developments since last year.

"It remains our view that when there is an unknown then it is always better to err on the side of caution," said Gideon Ewers, spokesman for the International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations.

Thurai Rahulan, a senior lecturer in aeronautics at Salford University in northwest England, said the technology on how to measure and monitor ash has improved, but aircraft's ability to cope with ash has not changed.

Image: Ash plumes
Jon Gustafsson  /  AP
This photo, taken Saturday, shows smoke plumes from the Grimsvotn volcano, which began erupting for the first time since 2004.

"Aircraft manufacturers have made more resources available to conduct studies on tolerating higher concentrations of ash, but as far as I know, no possible improvements have yet made it to front line operations yet," he said.

The disruption in Scotland is being caused by the smaller of two ash clouds from the volcano. The main cloud was causing minor disruptions around Scandinavia.

Iceland's main airport, Keflavik, and domestic airport Reykjavik both reopened Monday after being closed for almost 36 hours. Grimsvotn began erupting Saturday.

Hjordis Gudmundsdottir, spokeswoman for the airport administrator Isavia, said the first flight to take off would be an Icelandair flight to London Heathrow.

"The outlook is good for Keflavik and other Icelandic airports in the coming 24 hours," said Gudmundsdottir. "We don't have a forecast for after that so we wait and see."

The Met Office, Britain's weather forecasters, said there has been no major changes in the forecast — that some ash will drift across U.K. airspace, mostly in Scotland and Northern Ireland, by Tuesday morning.

But the weather in the U.K. has been very unsettled in the past two days and will continue to be that way in the days ahead, making predictions difficult.

"When it's all over the place, it's a bit trickier to predict where things may go," said forecaster Charlie Powell.

An Icelandic meteorological official said the eruption already appeared to be getting smaller, but Thierry Mariani, France's transport minister, said it was too early to tell whether air travel over Europe would be affected by the eruption.

Mariani told Europe 1 radio that the composition of the cloud will be examined in the coming days and if the ash is found to be harmful to airplanes, countries may take a joint decision to close part of Europe's airspace.

"The priority must always remain to ensure security," he said.

U.K. Transport Secretary Phillip Hammond told the BBC that Britain had equipment in Iceland analyzing the ash as it comes out of the volcano, and equipment in the UK that analyses the density of the ash.

"We won't see a blanket closing of airspace," he said.

The plume was drifting mostly southward at a height of 5 kilometers to 9 kilometers (16,404 feet to 29,528 feet), the Icelandic Meteorological Office said in a report late Monday. Those are the normal altitudes for passenger airliners, and the plume was down from a maximum height of 50,000 feet Sunday, said Steinunn Jakobsdottir, a geophysicist at the forecaster.

The eruption has abated slightly since Sunday and no earthquakes have been recorded at the site since then, the forecaster said.

The European air traffic control agency's models showed the main plume of ash gradually extending northward from Iceland in the next two days. The cloud is predicted to arch its way north of Scandinavia and possibly touch the islands off the northern Russian coastline within the next two days.

Eurocontrol said the smaller ash plume was not expected to move farther east than the west coast of Scotland.

Some airline chiefs complained that regulators had overreacted by shutting much of Europe's airspace last year, stranding millions of passengers and causing big losses to airlines. But a study last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded the shutdown had been justified.

The possibility of disruption appeared to be affecting airline shares, which fell more than the market average. IAG, the parent company of British Airways and Iberia, closed down 5.1 percent on the day while Lufthansa shed 3.5 percent and Air France KLM fell 4.5 percent.

Lekic reported from Brussels. Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark; Gabriele Steinhauser and Raf Casert in Brussels; and Maria Cheng contributed to this report.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Iceland’s Grimsvotn volcano erupts

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  1. In a photo taken on May 24, plumes of ash and steam billow out from the crater of the Grimsvotn volcano. Air traffic disruption triggered by the eruption of Iceland's volcano was reduced to parts of Norway and Sweden Thursday, as the last spits of hot vapour seeped out of the crater. Thousands of passengers had their travel plans ripped up after Saturday's eruption, with hundreds of flights over Scotland and Germany among the worst affected this week, although far short of the scale of disruption caused by another eruption on Iceland just over one year ago. (Bjorn Oddsson / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Icelandic farmer Helgi Vilberg Johansson poses with a lamb who was affected by ash spewed into the sky during the eruption of Iceland's Grimsvoetn volcano, on May 25, in Amardrangi Landbroti. Johansson said the air was thick with volcanic ash and he couldn't see out of the windows when he heard the lambs making noise. When he went out to investigate, he found that a few of the lambs had died. (Ragnar Axelsson / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A plume smoke is seen rising from the Grimsvotn volcano in Iceland Wednesday May 25. (Agust Gudbjornsson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A worker photographs the volcanic ash from the eruption of the Grimsvotn volcano inside of a fuel dispensing machine in Kirkjubaejarklaustur, Iceland May 26. Iceland's volcano is producing mostly steam rather than ash and should calm down within a few days, national police said on Thursday encouraging hopes there will be no further disruption to flights in northern Europe. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A passenger uses his mobile phone after all flights were cancelled due to volcanic ash in the skies over northern Germany at Tegel airport in Berlin, May 25. (Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A farmer, left, and a rescue worker collect animals near the village of Kirkjubaejarklaustur on May 24. People living next to the glacier where the Grimsvotn volcano burst into life on Saturday were most affected, with ash shutting out the daylight and smothering buildings and vehicles. An ash cloud from a volcano on Iceland shut down flights in northern Britain and elsewhere in north Europe on Tuesday and was heading to Germany, but officials expected no repeat of last year's air chaos. (Ingolfur Juliusson / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Passengers wait in the main terminal at Edinburgh Airport, in Scotland on May 24. Ash from an Icelandic volcano forced the cancellation of dozens of flights to and from Scotland on Tuesday but Ireland's Ryanair said it would protest against "unnecessary" restrictions. (David Moir / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. The eruption of the Grimsvotn volcano sends thousands of tons of volcanic ash into the sky on May 23 above Iceland. The cloud has forced the closure of Icelandic airspace and spread fears of a repeat of the global travel chaos that was caused by last year's Icelandic eruption, although authorities inisist that this Grimsvotn poses a lesser threat. (Jon Magnusson / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A combination of pictures shows the growing ash plume from the Grimsvotn volcano, under the Vatnajokull glacier in southeast Iceland, as its eruption begins on Saturday, May 21. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A group of students help a pair of German hitchhikers pack up their camp site just east of Kirkjubæjarklaustur on May 22. (Anna Andersen) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. The eruption of the Grimsvotn volcano sends thousands of tons of volcanic ash into the sky on May 23 above Iceland. Airlines began canceling flights to and from Scotland because of volcanic ash, although experts expected no repeat of travel chaos from an eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano a year ago. (Jon Magnusson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A man cleans his ash-smothered car in the village of Kirkjubaejarklaustur, southern Iceland, on May 23. (Vilheldm Gunnarsson / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. This satellite image provided by NASA shows the plume of dense ash from the Grimsvotn volcano as it casts a shadow to the west on May 23. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A bird is lit by a vehicle's headlights in the middle of the day, as it sits on the road in an ash cloud, near Kirkjubaearklaustur on May 23. (Brynjar Gauti / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A plane is seen against a sunset over Kensington Palace in London, May 23. A dense cloud of ash from an Icelandic volcano was being blown toward Scotland, forcing several airlines to cancel their flights. (Alastair Grant / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama board Air Force One at the airport in Dublin on May 23 en route to London. Obama left Ireland ahead of schedule as concerns over an ash cloud sped up his travel plans. (Jewel Samad / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A man walking a street in the village of Kirkjubaejarklaustur, around noon on May 23. (Vilheldm Gunnarsson / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
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