Volcanic ash cloud: test flights raise hope for European air traffic

Air travel across much of Europe was paralysed for a fourth day on Sunday by a huge cloud of volcanic ash, but Dutch and German test flights carried out without apparent damage seemed to offer some hope of respite.

By Patrick Sawer and Robert Mendick
Daily Telegraph

Volcano chaos could continue for months

Britons stranded as Iceland volcano grounds flights

British Airways and Irish Aer Lingus highlighted uncertainty over any resumption of flights in the immediate future by cancelling all of its flights for Monday.

Dutch airline KLM said inspection of an airliner after a test flight showed no damage to engines or evidence of dangerous ash concentrations. Germany’s Lufthansa also reported problem-free test flights, while Italian and French carriers announced they would fly empty airliners on Sunday.

British Airways were also said to be planning to carry out a test flight from Heathrow to Cardiff this afternoon amid growing pressure to lift the ban, which has left hundreds of thousands of passengers stranded around the world.

BA said that, subject to approval, its test flight would involve a Boeing 747 jumbo jet with a four-strong crew and BA chief executive Willie Walsh aboard.

It was planned that the aircraft would take off from BA’s southern runway, flying over Windsor and Reading in Berkshire and heading off over the Atlantic.

The flight would last around two to three hours with the plane landing at BA’s engineering and maintenance base at Cardiff.

The Association of Dutch Pilots (VNV) said that along with sister organisations it believed a partial resumption of flights, with some restrictions, was possible.

“The concentration of ash particles in the atmosphere is in all likelihood so little it poses no threat to air transport,” said VNV chairman Evert van Zwol.

Through Sunday, a clampdown held across much of Europe, posing a growing problem for businesses including airlines, estimated to be losing $200 million a day, and thousands of travellers stranded worldwide.

Many countries, including Austria, Britain, France and Sweden, closed their airspace into Monday, and weather experts said wind patterns meant the cloud was not likely to move far until later in the week.

They said the dark grey plume rising from an Icelandic volcano and drifting southwards through the upper atmosphere could become more concentrated on Tuesday and Wednesday.

More countries were forced to close their air space yesterday as the ash cloud continued to expand across the continent.

Volcanic ash cloud latest: live

More than 17,000 flights to and from European airspace were cancelled, including all flights from Britain’s major airports.

The Met office reported that volcanic ash had begun to fall across Britain, coating surfaces with a fine layer of dust and raising fears for people with breathing difficulties.

Meanwhile experts warned of shortages of some foods with produce destined for British shops rotting in airport warehouses in other parts of the world.

Geologists reported that activity at the volcano increased yesterday, spewing a plume of ash 5.3 miles high into the atmosphere.

The Icelandic Meteorological Office said the winds blowing the volcanic ash south east to Europe and up into Scandinavia and Russia will continue in the same direction for at least two days and could go on until Wednesday.

But scientists fear there could be more eruptions from the 5,466-foot volcano, Mount Eyjafjallajökull.

Sigrun Hreinsdottir, a geophysicist at the University of Iceland, said: “From what we’ve seen, it could erupt, pause for a few weeks, and then possibly erupt again. It could go on for months.”

As the no fly zone expanded yesterday, so did the chaos.


The National Air Traffic Control Service (Nats) extended restrictions on flights from British airports to 7pm on Sunday, with the expectation of further extensions.

Tens of thousands of Britons stranded abroad were forced to check back into hotels or seek sea or rail routes home.

Ferry operators have reported record bookings. P&O took 6,000 foot passengers across the Channel on Friday compared to the 100 to 200 it would expect on a normal Friday in April.

Eurostar trains were fully booked until tomorrow, with 50,000 more passengers than normal since the airline disruption began on thursday, including comdeian John Cleese who arrived back in London last night after a mammoth overland journey from Norway.

The operator is charging passengers a minimum £223 for a single ticket from Paris to London over the next two days prompting accusations of profiteering. A return ticket can normally be bought for as little as £69. Eurostar denied it was cashing in.

Some 4,000 British tourists have been stranded in South Africa.

Paul and Catherine Newman and their daughters Francesca, eight, and Natasha, six, were among those stuck in Cape Town. Mr Newman, 44, said: “I have to get back to my business on Monday, and the girls are due back to school. We took our hire car back to the airport and used up all our holiday cash. After paying pounds 650 for each of us to fly, it’s very bleak.”

The British Embassy in Athens said there were currently “many thousand” British holidaymakers trying to leave Greece after the holidays, in many cases anxious to get back in time for the start of the school term this week, with some of those desperate to return resorting to renting cars or embarking on long trains journeys.

Several hoteliers on the Greek islands have begun offering free meals to help stranded guests cope with the extra cost of an enforced extension to their stay.


The Met Office reported that ash from Eyjafjallajokull had settled over much of Britain, with a thin coating detected at its monitoring stations in the North, the Midlands and the Thames Valley.

It said: “Evidence of ash dust over the UK is being detected by Met Office observations and there are reports of dust reaching the ground.”

The British Lung Foundation advised people with a lung condition to carry their medication as a precaution as they may experience short-term worsening of symptoms. However it stressed that the ash does not pose a significant health risk to the public.

There were reports lst night of cars as far afield as Heathrow and north Wales covered in a fine coating of the dust


The Freight Transport Association said that even if British airspace finally begins to open up in the coming days it would take a fortnight to clear the backlog of flights and food destined for the UK. Reports have already emerged of food beginning to rot at airports, with millions of pounds of vegetables and flowers destined for British supermarkets being destroyed in Kenya.

If disruption continues into this week shoppers will begin to notice a shortage of a number of food products normally airfreighted into the country, particularly from south east Asia and Africa.

The Freight Transport Association (FTA), warned that some imported fresh fruit and vegetables could soon be in short supply.

Jo Tanner, the Freight Transport Association spokeswoman, said last night: “We will start to see food shortages this week and we will not see a return to normality for at least two weeks”

Matthew Albert, head chef at Michelin starred Thai restaurant Nahm, in London, said they had been fortunate in receiving their weekly supply of produce from Thailand last Wednesday, a day earlier than normal because of a local holiday. Any later and it would have been grounded by the eruption. “But if flights don’t resume soon this week it will become increasingly difficult to source Thai ingredients in Britain and we will have to make changes to our menus,” he added.


The grounding of all flights has already cost the British economy at least £920 million, with losses set to rise at the rate of £230m for every day of further disruption.

The airline industry alone will have lost an estimated £520 million by the end of today, with losses of £130m for every day of disruption. Economists at the Centre for Economic and Business Research estimated that the wider economy is also expected to suffer losses of at least £100m a day from lost revenue and extra costs.

Steve Bond, a senior lecturer in airline operations and business aviation at City University, in London, said some of the smaller airlines could be “tipped over the edge” if the disruption of the past three days continues into the middle of this week.

Logistics company DHL confirmed that it expected significant disruption on several European air traffic routes, due to the temporary closing of air space through northern Europe and parts of western Europ.

The British Chambers of Commerce said the disruption could not have come at a worst time for business.

Its Director General, David Frost, said: “Business is still recovering from recession and for the first time in some years we are just beginning to see improvement in our exports.”

Mail from Britain to the far East was delayed, while post and parcels to the US were being taken by road to southern Spain to be flown across the Atlantic.


Schools face major disruption this week with teachers stranded abroad and unlikely to return in time after the Easter holidays.

Mark Southworth, head teacher of Woodcote High School in Croydon, said 12 of his teachers were stranded abroad, amounting to one in seven of his workforce. He has supply teachers on stand by to fill in for regulars who cannot make it back to the UK.

“We have made the decision that we are going to open and are planning for the worst-case scenario,” he said.

Martin Ward, the deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders said: “No doubt many schools will be short staffed on Monday because of teachers being stranded abroad.”

Cambridge University was forced to cancel examinations because dozens of students and examiners were still trapped abroad. Oral examinations at the Faculty of Modern & Medieval Languages which were due to take place tomorrow and Tuesday have been postponed.


The travel restrictions also hit the sporting calendar.

Olympic champion Bradley Wiggins was forced to miss a cycle race in the Netherlands and football referee Steve Bennett, who was due to officiate the Manchester derby yesterday, was stranded in Romania.

Great Britain’s opening match at the Ice Hockey World Championships in Slovenia yesterday was delayed to allow the team to alter its travel plans by swapping a flight for bus and train.

The ash also affected rugby league’s Challenge Cup, with Widnes Vikings and Lezignan being postponed after the French club’s flight to England was cancelled.

The aftermath of the eruption also had an impact on cultural events. Russell Watson, the tenor, was forced to call off a concert in Ireland after his flight was one of thousands cancelled, while singer Mika postponed a concert in Portugal and members of “cartoon” rock band Gorillaz, due to headline at California’s huge Coachella festival, were stuck at Heathrow.

Meanwhile, Liverpool and Fulham faced finding alternative ways of getting their players to the Europa League semi-finals in Madrid and Hamburg on Thursday (April 22).


The first detailed analysis of the molten rock thrown out by last week’s eruptions has given clues to why the impact has been so severe – and suggested that it could cause protracted chaos for Britain. While last month’s initial explosion involved magma made of basalt, the rock exploding through the ice now is composed largely of andesite, scientists at the University of Iceland have discovered.

The significance is that andesite has a markedly higher gas content than basalt. This may mean that even after all the ice in the crater has melted, the exploding volcano will continue to throw ash into the air rather than simply produce lava flows.

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