Iceland volcano ash hits European flights again

European air traffic faced growing disruption Saturday as a cloud of ash spewing from an Icelandic volcano affected flights in Spain, France and Portugal and closed Barcelona airport, authorities said.

Hundreds of flights were cancelled while many transatlantic services were delayed as they skirted the plume of debris from the Eyjafjoell volcano, which plunged air travel across the continent into chaos last month.

"Ash eruptions are ongoing and the area of potential ash contamination is expanding," the Brussels-based European air traffic coordination agency Eurocontrol said in a statement.

Transatlantic flights, being re-routed around the area owing to different concentrations of ash particles and predicted engine tolerance levels at different altitudes, were already experiencing "substantial delays," it said.

Approximately 25,000 flights were expected to cross European skies on Saturday, well down from more than 30,000 on Friday.

"The reduction of available airspace is also impacting flights arriving in or departing from the Iberian peninsula and delays could be expected," Eurocontrol said.

Spain shut down 19 airports because of the ash cloud including Barcelona, Spain's second biggest airport, which ceased operations at 3:30 p.m. (1330 GMT) on Saturday, national airport operator Aena said.

A total of 673 flights had already been cancelled and Aena said the closures would be in place until at least 2000 GMT Saturday. National airline Iberia suspended all flights to northern Spain.

In Portugal 104 flights serving Lisbon, Oporto and Faro were cancelled Saturday, hitting mainly low-cost airlines, airport officials and websites said.

Portuguese air traffic control said restrictions would be lifted gradually from 1200 GMT.

In France the national weather service said the ash cloud would be covering the southern part of the country by late Saturday, with concentrations rising to 6,000 metres (20,000 feet).

Meteo France official Roxane Desire could not predict if the ash would disperse before Wednesday's opening of the Cannes film festival, when private jets in particular throng Riviera airports.

An Air France plane took off from Paris Charles de Gaulle airport on Saturday afternoon on a flight to test ash levels, an airport sources said.

Marseille airport, the main French hub for low-cost carrier Ryanair, said all that company's flights from 1400 GMT had been cancelled, plus two services to Lisbon, making a total of 15 flights. There were also cancellations from Bordeaux.

In Iceland itself some 60 inhabitants of the zone around the volcano have left the area voluntarily following the fresh eruptions, a civil protection agency official said Saturday.

"There is a lot of ash falling and the community is affected," Gudrun Johannesdottir told AFP, adding that authorities were monitoring the situation closely but no evacuation had been ordered.

"The Red Cross opened centres for people needing assistance. Those leaving (the area) have to report to the Red Cross," she said.

Eyjafjoell began fresh and intensive ash eruptions overnight Thursday and caused Ireland and the Faroe Islands to shut their airspace for a time.

Bjoern Oddsson, a geologist at the University of Iceland, said the smoke plume over the volcano had risen to seven kilometres (4.5 miles) Saturday and was bearing southeast.

"The volcanic activity is similar to what it was yesterday and hasn't increased, even though it might seem like that to the people living in the area affected by ash fall," he said.

The volcano began erupting on April 14 and caused travel chaos, with airspaces closed over several European nations for a week because of fears that aircraft engines would be damaged with fatal consequences.

It was the biggest aerial shutdown in Europe since World War II, with more than 100,000 flights cancelled and eight million passengers affected. The airline industry said it lost some 2.5 billion euros.

burs/dk/rom

 

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