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Apr 21, 2010 9:38 AM by Sharlee Jacobs

Airlines lose $1.7 Billion From Volcano Ash :Blame Game Begins


Airlines lost at least $1.7 billion in revenue
during the volcanic ash crisis, an industry group said Wednesday as
the debate heated up over European governments' handling of a week
of airspace closures.
Planes were flying into all of Europe's top airports - London's
Heathrow, Paris' Charles de Gaulle and Frankfurt. Still experts
predicted it could take days - even more than a week - to clear a
backlog of stranded passengers after about 102,000 flights were
canceled around the world.
Eurocontrol, the air traffic control agency in Brussels, said
21,000 of the continent's 28,000 scheduled flights will go ahead on
Wednesday, as airlines patched together operations with planes and
flight crews scattered all over the globe.
Air controllers lifted all restrictions on German airspace, but
some restrictions remained over parts of Britain, Ireland and
France.
Giovanni Bisignani, the head of the International Air Transport
Association, called the economic fallout from the six-day travel
shutdown "devastating" and urged European governments to examine
ways to compensate airlines for lost revenues, as the U.S.
government did following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
He said it would take three years for the industry to recover
from the week of lost flying time.
Spain, meanwhile, has developed into a key emergency travel hub,
arranging for hundreds of special flights to move over 40,000
people stranded by the travel disruptions. Its airports and
airspace have mostly remained open throughout the crisis.
German aviation agency Deutsche Flugsicherung said the decision
to reopen the country's airspace Wednesday was made based on
weather data, not economics. It said the concentration of volcano
ash in the sky "considerably decreased and will continue to
dwindle."
"Bremen, Hamburg, Hannover, Berlin, Frankfurt and Munich are
open again," said Axel Raab, a spokesman for German air traffic
control.
"We cannot say what it will look like in the next few days. If
the volcano becomes active again, new closures might happen," Raab
added. "This is a decision that was made based on meteorological
data."
A test flight carried out by the German Aerospace Center found
various levels of volcanic ash at different sites over Germany. The
highest concentration of ash was over eastern Germany, but the
report said its density was comparable to a plume of dust above the
Saharan desert. The airspace above the northern city of Hamburg was
entirely free from ash.
The center reported no damage to the airplane that flew the test
flight.
A French weather service plane also took samples of the air
Tuesday and found no volcanic ash problems either, according to
French transport minister Dominique Bussereau.
Passengers, many of whom were stranded for days, welcomed the
airport reopenings.
"It's good for us at least," Mats Tillander, a Swede at
Frankfurt International Airport, who spent four days trapped in
Texas, told AP Television News. But he was not sure who to believe
in the dispute over whether the airspace closings were overkill.
"I don't know what's right and wrong," he said.
Airlines lost $400 million each day during the first three days
of grounding, Bisignani told a news conference Wednesday in Berlin.
At one stage, 29 percent of global aviation and 1.2 million
passengers a day were affected by the airspace closure ordered by
European governments, who feared the risk that volcanic ash could
pose to airplanes.
"For an industry that lost $9.4 billion last year and was
forecast to lose a further $2.8 billion in 2010, this crisis is
devastating," Bisignani said. "Governments should help carriers
recover the cost of this disruption."
He noted that the scale of the crisis eclipsed the events of
Sept. 11, when U.S. airspace was closed for three days.
Ryanair chief executive Michael OLeary called the shutdown
imposed by European governments excessive.
"It might have made sense to ground flights for a day or two.
That's understandable. But there should have been a much faster
response by the governments, the transport ministers and the
regulators," he told The Associated Press.
"Nobody in their right mind would want to fly through a dark
plume of smoke. But by the time that that cloud has dispersed
through 800 or 1,000 nautical miles of air space, a full ban should
never have been imposed," O'Leary said.
But Eamonn Brennan, chief executive of Irish Aviation Authority,
defended the governments' responses. He said there was "no safe,
quick fix" for the problem and the closures allowed Europe to come
up with a scientific-based, risk-mitigation scheme to handle an
unprecedented situation.
"It's important to realize that we've never experienced in
Europe something like this before. So it wasn't just a simple
matter of saying: Yes, you could have operated on Saturday or
Sunday or Monday," he told the AP. "We needed the four days of
test flights, the empirical data, to put this together and to
understand the levels of ash that engines can absorb."
In Iceland, where all the trouble began April 14 with a volcanic
eruption, there was no sign Wednesday that the Eyjafjallajokull
(ay-yah-FYAH-lah-yer-kuhl) volcano would stop erupting anytime
soon, according to Pall Einarsson, a geophysicist at the Institute
of Earth Sciences in Reykjavik.
"We cannot predict when it will end," he said. "(But) ash
production is going down and is really insignificant at the
moment."
At Heathrow's Terminal 3 outside of London - home to many
airlines including Virgin Atlantic and Air Canada - no one was
allowed inside the departures level until they had been checked by
their airline to ensure they had a valid ticket. The departure
boards still showed about half the flights as canceled.
Despite the uncertainty, passengers were optimistic that they
would soon be moving. Juanjo Dominguez, a 25-year-old web designer
from London, was at the airport for his afternoon flight to New
York.
"I feel good, hopeful," Dominguez said. "I am still keeping
my fingers crossed."
At the terminal's arrivals level, there was just a small trickle
of passengers arriving from New York and Madrid.
In Spain, the airport in Barcelona - near the border with France
and thus a gateway to the rest of Europe - took in flights from New
York, Orlando, Vancouver, Paris, Nice and Rome. Airports in
Barcelona and Madrid also chartered nearly 300 buses to get people
to other cities in Europe, and Palma on the Mediterranean island of
Mallorca handled 50 extra flights.
Bussereau, the French minister, predicted air traffic will be
back to normal before the weekend as aviation authorities expanded
the corridors where planes are allowed to fly. He estimated all of
Air France's long-distance flights to and from France would fly
Wednesday, and up to 70 percent of its mid-range flights.
Ryanair announced it will be resuming a "substantial
proportion" of its normal services in northern Europe, beginning
at 5 a.m. (0400GMT, midnight EDT) Thursday. Services to Ireland and
Britain will begin Friday at 5 a.m.
Deutsche Lufthansa AG's chief executive on Wednesday welcomed
the government's decision to reopen the skies.
The quantity of ash in German airspace is so low that there's
"absolutely no danger," Wolfgang Mayrhuber told broadcaster ARD.
"We will restart our system as quickly as possible."
Lufthansa, Germany's biggest airline, planned to operate some
500 flights on Wednesday, compared with 1,800 on a normal day.
Mayrhuber criticized how the flight disruptions were handled,
saying decisions were made on what he called forecasts of
questionable reliability.
"From the beginning, we had the suspicion that the forecasting
model could not be all right," Mayrhuber said.
However, he said his company would not seek government
compensation.
"We don't need a bailout, we don't need an umbrella," he said.
Lufthansa is Europe's largest airline group by sales. It owns or
holds stakes in carriers including Swiss International Airlines,
Austrian Airlines and British Midland.

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