European airports started to return to life on Tuesday after five days cut off from the rest of the world by a volcanic ash cloud, but some countries were more cautious after reports a new cloud might be on its way.
The uncertainty and patchy pattern of navigable airspace may last as long as the Icelandic volcano keeps hurling ash into the sky — last time it blew for more than a year — and economists are beginning to model the longer-term economic impact.
But there was a major boost to travellers and air freight as Britain, a major international air hub as well as a busy destination in its own right, said it would reopen its airspace within hours.
Britain, squarely under the ash plume, which can potentially scour and even paralyse jet engines, had lagged its European neighbours in downgrading the threat to airplanes.
The gradual reopening offered stranded passengers relief after days of frustration since no-fly zones were imposed on Thursday.
Belgian businessman Thomas Vanderstappen was playing airline roulette, buying five air tickets from Moscow to different European destinations in the hope one would eventually take off.
“I should get out today, Vienna seems a sure thing,” he said, queuing at the information desk in Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, which had seen a significant increase in flights to Western Europe in the previous 24 hours.
“The first two days I spent a lot of time in the airport I was checked in four or five times on four or five different airlines. I even got onto planes and then got kicked off.”
European aviation control agency Eurocontrol said on Tuesday about half of scheduled air traffic in Europe was expected to operate: about 14,000 flights, up from a third on Monday..
Air France said it planned to fly all of its long-haul programme on Wednesday, although flights in parts of northern Europe would remain suspended. Germany kept its airspace closed, with some exceptions.
Britain sent a warship to northern Spain to collect around 300 stranded Britons. It said it would use Madrid as a hub for British citizens stranded outside of Europe to fly to, and more than 100 coaches were being sent to take them to ferry ports.
The European Union, which reached the deal to ease flight restrictions on Monday under pressure from airlines losing $250 million a day, acknowledged progress was slow.
“We know there are still a lot of problems for passengers on the ground,” Helen Kearns, spokeswoman for the executive European Commission, told a briefing.
“We are faced with an unprecedented crisis. The disruption will continue over the week.”
The economic impact of the cloud, already hitting parts of the supply chain, could increase sharply if air travel is disrupted into a second week — potentially denting the fragile recovery from the global recession.
PricewaterhouseCoopers estimated a week of disruption could destroy around 0.025-0.05 percent of annual British GDP, and the same would probably be true of other European countries.
Luxury carmaker BMW said it would stop production at some German plants due to a lack of electronic component deliveries. Nissan Motor Co has halted production on three lines in Japan.
The Association of European Airlines said some European airlines would be out of business in the next week or two. A spokesman for the International Air Transport Association said: “We need to find a better way for decision-making.”
Humanitarian flights were also affected.
The U.S. military is evacuating war-wounded from Afghanistan to a base in Iraq, instead of sending them to Germany. A polio immunisation campaign in West Africa has had to be delayed because the vaccines are stuck at French and German airports.
“These vaccines have to be kept cool and, if this situation lasts longer, they would have to be sent back to manufacturers to ensure that they are preserved, ” Martin Dawes, of the U.N. Children’s Fund UNICEF, told Reuters.
Under the EU deal, an area close to the volcano remains closed to flights, but countries can open their airspace in zones where there is little or no identifiable ash cloud, subject to local safety assessments.
On Tuesday, the ash spewing from the erupting volcano was hanging lower in the air, which was seen as better news for Europe, but strong winds higher up made conditions uncertain.
Rognvaldur Olafsson, chief inspector at the Icelandic department of civil protection, told Reuters:
“We have some indications that the activity is decreasing. We have less ash fall, and also there seems to be a little less activity in the crater…
“You have to choose your words very carefully, but at least the scientists tell us that the activity is going down. We cannot make the assumption that the worst is over, but we hope it is.”
An expert from the World Meteorological Organisation said in Geneva that a low pressure weather system moving into Iceland should help clear the ash cloud within days.
“From a meteorological point of view, (for) the second part of the week towards the weekend, all indications are very, very positive,” the WMO’s Herbert Puempel told journalists.
Experts have disagreed over how to measure the ash and who should decide it is safe to fly. A British Airways jet lost power in all four engines after flying through an ash cloud above the Indian Ocean in 1982.
Several airlines conducted more test flights on Tuesday.
(Additional reporting by European and Asian bureaux; Writing by Alison Williams; Editing by Kevin Liffey) ($1=.6233 Pound)
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