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Hundreds of flights hit as ash reaches Britain

Japanese seeking quiet holiday run into raging volcano
Kirkjubaejarklaustur, Iceland (AFP) May 24, 2011 - A group of Japanese tourists seeking peace and quiet in Iceland after the devastation in their own country instead came face-to-face with a raging volcano.

The 11 Japanese tourists were hiking on the majestic Vatnajoekull glacier in southeast Iceland on Saturday when the country's most active volcano Grimsvoetn awoke at the heart of the ice, setting off earth tremors and spewing ash and smoke up to 20 kilometres (12 miles) into the air, their guide Hjalti Bjornsson recounted.

"They were quite excited. They had never seen anything like that," the 54-year-old glacier guide told AFP by telephone from Hoefn, where the group remained stranded Tuesday.

The Japanese tourists, he said, "came to Iceland looking for peace and quiet" after the devastating earthquake and tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster that hit Japan in March, "and look what they got!"

"We were about 10 kilometres from the eruption. It was not dangerous," Bjornsson insisted, adding that there was very little wind at first and the hikers were not showered in ash.

"But in the middle of the night, the wind turned ... and ash was blowing all over the hotel where we were," Bjornsson said, adding that by Sunday morning "with the sun shining, it was completely dark. We could see nothing."

The group remained captive in their hotel for several hours. Hardly able to see further than a meter (a yard) in front of them, they witnessed "small birds through the window, just dying. Covered in ash. It was awful," Bjornsson said.

Even the guide, who said he had witnessed numerous volcanic eruptions up close, could not stomach staying inside the ash cloud.

As soon as visibility improved slightly, the group made a run for Hoefn, a small village of about 2,000 inhabitants on the east side of the glacier, only to find themselves stranded with the road behind them closed due to ash and the road in front due to a snowstorm.

"We are still stuck, because usually you can drive around the island, but we got so much snow further north, maybe 20-25 centimetres, a snowstorm actually. ... We cannot go south and we cannot go east," Bjornsson lamented.

While farmers near the volcano rushed to find livestock lost in the dust, the tourist group has by comparison been living quite comfortably in a hotel.

"We escaped from the ash, so here we have blue skies," Bjornsson said, adding that the group had seen "everything" in Hoefn.

"They have an excellent swimming pool here and a sauna. ... We have been at the library, we have been at the folk museum," he says.

As to when they will be able to leave, though, he sighs: "We are still waiting, waiting, waiting."

by Staff Writers
London (AFP) May 24, 2011
Airlines grounded about 500 flights Tuesday after ash from an Icelandic volcano swept over Britain and towards northern Europe in a fresh travel nightmare for thousands of passengers.

Barely a year after a similar eruption in Iceland forced the biggest closure of European airspace since World War II, ash-laden clouds caused flights in and out of Scotland, northern England and Northern Ireland to be cancelled.

British Airways led the way in cancelling flights as the plume from the Grimsvoetn volcano spread eastwards, followed by Dutch airline KLM, Ireland's Aer Lingus and budget airlines easyJet and Ryanair.

"Approximately 500 flights were cancelled from the approximately 29,000 that would have been expected today across Europe," said a statement from Brussels-based air traffic controllers Eurocontrol.

The ash cloud caused minor air traffic disruption in Norway and closed a small part of Denmark's airspace on Tuesday, and Eurocontrol warned there was a "strong possibility" that it would spread to southwest Sweden by Wednesday.

"This would have some impact on flights. However, given the new procedures in place and the predicted movement of the ash cloud over the coming days, the actual impact on flights is expected to be relatively low," it said.

Weather charts produced by the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre run by Britain's Met Office predicted that a low cloud of ash would sweep across northern Europe overnight Tuesday, taking in northern Germany, Poland and Scandinavia.

Authorities say the ash can damage planes and stop engines, but Ryanair flew a plane through Scottish airspace and said it detected no ash on the aircraft.

It accused British and Irish authorities of over-reacting but reluctantly cancelled its flights to and from Scotland -- almost 70 in total.

British Airways conducted its own "verification" flight later Tuesday, sending out an Airbus A320 from Manchester Airport to assess the risk over northern England and southern Scotland.

The growing chaos threatens planning for events including the G8 summit and the football Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United, which takes place at London's Wembley Stadium on Saturday.

Barcelona said its squad would fly to London on Tuesday, two days earlier than planned, due to the "uncertainty" caused by the volcano.

European Union transport commissioner Siim Kallas played down fears that the situation could get as bad as in 2010, when thousands of travellers from around the world were left stranded.

"We do not at this stage anticipate widespread airspace closure and prolonged disruption like we saw last year," Kallas told a news conference.

Iceland's Meteorological Office said activity at the volcano had slowed Tuesday, and an Icelandic crisis management official said the plume of ash has fallen from its peak altitude of 20 kilometres (12 miles) to two kilometres on Tuesday evening.

The most high-profile victim of the chaos was US President Barack Obama, who was forced to leave Ireland for London a day ahead of schedule on Monday night to avoid being stranded there.

When Iceland's Eyjafjoell volcano erupted last year, the ash plume arrived first in Britain before spreading across the rest of Europe. Many airlines were deeply unhappy at the time at being forced to halt their flights.

Ryanair revealed Monday that last year's airspace shutdown cost it nearly 30 million euros (42 million dollars) and railed against the current closures.

It said its one-hour verification flight in Scotland's airspace on Tuesday showed no visible volcanic ash cloud.

"The absence of any volcanic ash in the atmosphere supports Ryanair's stated view that there is no safety threat to aircraft in this mythical 'red zone' which is another misguided invention by the UK Met Office and the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority)," the Irish airline said in a statement.

Fellow budget carrier bmi cancelled Tuesday's flights from Edinburgh and Glasgow but anticipated "a normal flying programme" on Wednesday.

British transport minister Philip Hammond said the ash plume was a natural phenomenon "but the UK is now much better prepared to deal with an ash eruption than last year."

The CAA no longer issues blanket bans on flights; instead, it identifies areas of high-, medium- and low-density ash and asks airlines wishing to operate in high- or medium-density ash to request permission to fly.


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Iceland volcano still spewing ash, Europe threatened
Reykjavik (AFP) May 24, 2011
A plume of ash from an erupting Icelandic volcano headed for Britain Tuesday, forcing flight cancellations and a change in US President Barack Obama's travel plans. The eruption of Grimsvoetn has raised concerns over a repeat of last year's travel chaos sparked by the eruption of another Icelandic volcano which led to the biggest shutdown of European airspace since World War II. "The low ... read more

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