Volcanic ash snarls Scottish, Irish air services
Associated Press Writer
DUBLIN (AP) – A new wave of dense volcanic ash from Iceland snarled air traffic Wednesday in Ireland and Scotland, stranding tens of thousands of people and threatening to spill into the air space of England.
Ireland’s key hub, Dublin Airport, admitted defeat for the day and canceled all flights until 4 a.m. (0300GMT) Thursday, marooning more than 30,000 passengers in the process.
More than a dozen other airports throughout the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland shut down, too, as unseasonal winds pushed the engine-wrecking ash southwest back toward the Atlantic rather than northeast into the unpopulated Arctic.
The renewed volcanic-ash threat in the skies of Britain and Ireland this week, following a two-week lull, has tested the more precise safety rules adopted by European aviation authorities following the unprecedented April 14-20 closure of most northern European airspace.
Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said Wednesday’s ash threat might reach northwestern England and Wales but would miss the four major airports of London.
Authorities are seeking to stop flights only when the ash reaches certain density levels and gets within 60 miles (100 kilometers) of an airport’s path for landings and takeoffs – a stark contrast to last month’s closures of air services throughout several countries.
In Scotland, Glasgow Airport shut immediately Wednesday but its eastern neighbor, Edinburgh, stayed open until midday – though most airlines canceled services there anyway amid widespread confusion.
The Irish Aviation Authority said Dublin should be the country’s first airport to reopen. The other major international hub, Shannon Airport, will shut from 5:30 p.m. (1630GMT) Wednesday until 1 p.m. (1200GMT) Thursday. Two smaller airports in southwest Ireland, Cork and Kerry, were to shut at midnight and reopen at 11 a.m. (1000GMT) and 3 p.m. (1400GMT), respectively.
The rapidly changing situation obliged would-be fliers to hop on trains, buses and taxis to reach nearby airports. Virgin Trains also launched extra services Wednesday between Scotland and London.
Market-leading airline Ryanair sought to discourage the passengers’ dashing from airport to airport by announcing blanket closures Wednesday for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Dublin.
Ryanair also warned customers planning to fly out of several airports in the west and north of England – Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle – to check the company’s Web site and remain alert for possible closure announcements.
But Scotland’s leader, First Minister Alex Salmond, slammed the Civil Aviation Authority for issuing a vague, inaccurate statement overnight that resulted in unnecessary flight cancelations in eastern Scotland, including Edinburgh and Aberdeen. He said the CAA had apologized to him.
“That can’t be allowed to happen again. … Press statements must be clear and not cause confusion,” Salmond said.
Aviation chiefs in Ireland and Britain said they were updating their closures and reopenings within minutes of receiving updated ash maps every six hours from the Volcanic Ash Advisory Center in England.
Donie Mooney, operations director at the Irish Aviation Authority, said the volcano’s emissions changed over the past few days and caught forecasters off guard, forcing Ireland to abandon its hopes of staying open Wednesday.
“The ash plume has been going higher and the ash is of a coarser nature. That threw our projected opening times into some disarray,” he said.
Still, the ash clouds are remaining below 20,000 feet (6 kilometers), far lower than the cruising altitude of passenger jets. Therefore they pose a danger only to ascending or descending aircraft.
In Iceland, authorities said poor weather Wednesday was obscuring their view of the volcano and preventing coast guard aircraft from flying over the volcano. Civil Protection Coordination Office official Agust Gunnar Gylfason said the volcano’s seismic activity has been unchanged in recent days.
Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokul volcano, about 900 miles (1,500 miles) northwest of Ireland, began disgorging tons of ash April 13 and has shown no signs of stopping. The glacier-capped volcano last erupted sporadically from 1821 to 1823.
Travel experts warned that Ireland was particularly vulnerable to summertime disruption if Eyjafjallajokul doesn’t calm down.
“If Iceland has the wrong kind of geology, Ireland has the wrong kind of geography. It’s too close to Iceland and is dependent on air travel,” said tourism industry analyst Simon Calder.
Last month European authorities canceled 100,000 flights affecting 10 million passengers as they sought to craft a plan for managing the ash menace. The groundings cost the aviation industry billions in lost business. EU rules also require the airlines to cover the hotel and food expenses of stranded passengers who stay put to wait out the delays.