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Iceland volcano still spewing ash, Europe threatened

British Airways cancels flights due to ash cloud
London (AFP) May 24, 2011 - Flagship carrier British Airways said Monday it was to temporarily suspend flights between London and Scotland as a cloud of ash from an Icelandic volcano drifted towards Britain.

"Following forecasts of significant volcanic ash in Scottish airspace, (we) have decided as a precaution that it will not operate any flights between London and Scotland on Tuesday ... that arrive in Scotland before 2:00 pm (1300 GMT) or depart from Scotland before 2:00 pm," a BA statement said.

"At present all other flights are unaffected," it added.

US President Barack Obama was forced to leave Ireland a day ahead of schedule Monday to fly to London after forecasters predicted ash from the Grimsvoetn volcano was set to enter Scottish airspace and drift south.

"Due to a recent change in the trajectory in the plume of volcanic ash, Air Force One will depart Ireland for London tonight. The schedule for tomorrow will proceed as planned," a White House official said.

Under the changed plans, Obama was to depart Dublin for London on Monday evening as part of his six-day European tour of four countries.

After his state visit to Britain he is due to fly to France on Thursday.

Volcanic ash is expected to reach Scottish airspace by 0100 GMT on Tuesday, according to the British air traffic control operator NATS.

Dutch airline KLM, Irish carrier Aer Lingus and budget liner Easyjet also suspended flights to northern Britain and Scotland due to the shifting plume of ash.

When an Icelandic volcano erupted last year, the plume of ash arrived in Scotland before spreading quickly across Britain, shutting down the whole country's airspace.

The ash then drifted across most of Europe, sparking the biggest shutdown of airspace since World War II.

Grimsvoetn had so far forced only the closure of Iceland's airspace at the weekend, parts of which were reopening on Monday.

The change to Obama's plans came shortly after a Scottish airline announced it was axing a handful of flights early Tuesday and Britain warned the ash was already causing minor flight disruptions.

Meanwhile, football club Barcelona said it would make a decision Tuesday regarding their travel plans for the Champions League final which they are due to contest with Manchester United in London on Saturday.

British transport minister Philip Hammond said there had been some delays to flights but added Britain was better prepared after last year's travel chaos when Iceland's Eyjafjoell volcano caused major disruption.

"There have already been some modest delays to flights, particularly those crossing the Atlantic, due to the need for those flights to avoid areas of high ash concentration," he said.

"Clearly, this is a natural phenomenon which we cannot control, but the UK is now much better prepared to deal with an ash eruption than last year," he said.

Britain's Civil Aviation Authority said that since last year's crisis it had brought in new measures, including a move that areas of high, medium and low density ash will be identified using data from the Met Office.

Instead of a blanket ban on flights, British airlines wishing to operate in high or medium density ash will now have to have a safety request approved by the CAA.

The request sets out measures airlines will take to reduce the risk of flying through ash.

"None has so far submitted a safety case to operate in high density ash," it said.

by Staff Writers
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-level winds are... blowing strongly towards the UK," said Peitur Arason of the Icelandic Meteorological Office, as British air traffic control operator NATS said volcanic ash was expected to reach Scottish airspace by early Tuesday.

Obama left Ireland for Britain on Monday night, one day ahead of schedule because of fears that the ash cloud could affect travel on Tuesday. The Irish visit was the first stop on a six-day European tour.

The change to Obama's plans came shortly after a Scottish airline announced it was axing a handful of flights early Tuesday.

Glasgow-based regional airline Loganair, which serves mainly Scottish destinations, said it had axed 36 services.

Flagship carrier British Airways, Dutch airline KLM, Irish carrier Aer Lingus and budget airline Easyjet also suspended flights late Monday destined for northern Britain.

International air carriers were also carefully monitoring the situation. In Asia, Air China said it had suspended flights to Stockholm but that all other European routes were operating normally.

Other Asia-Pacific airlines such as Cathay Pacific, Qantas and Singapore Airlines reported no disruption so far.

While carriers including Japan's All Nippon Airways and Thai Airways said they were still watching developments, ANA said it was moving its European flight paths a little to the south to avoid any ash cloud.

Two days into its most powerful eruption in over a century, monitors said ash particles from the Grimsvoetn volcano had been scattered across much of Iceland, forcing the country to close its airspace Sunday.

But winds shifted and began pushing the ash to the south, allowing the North Atlantic island nation to reopen all of its four airports by Monday evening.

However, Hjordis Gudmundsdottir, a spokeswoman for Iceland's airport authority Isavia, pointed out that "with a volcano still erupting one can only imagine the possibilities of the airport being shut again. Any sort of predictions are impossible."

Denmark's autonomous territory Greenland, the only other place where airspace so far has been shut due to the ash, extended the closure of some airspace until at least midnight GMT.

The main question for Tuesday was if the ash production would affect Scotland or Northern Ireland, Gunnar Gudmundsson, a geophysicist colleague of Arason, told AFP, pointing out that there was also a danger the ash could get into a jetstream to the south of Iceland and could head to the North Sea.

Gudmundsson stressed, "It is not clear how this (ash) production will continue."

"It's very difficult to guess what will happen," he said, adding the explosive, ash-producing phase of the eruption would hopefully end within a few days.

Experts also point out that the ash from the ongoing eruption appears coarser than the very fine ash from last year's blast, and should therefore not travel as far.

European air traffic controllers in Brussels said Monday they did not expect any further airspace closures due to the ash until the end of Tuesday.

A spokeswoman for EU transport commissioner Siim Kallas, however, suggested that the picture was less certain.

"There is at the moment a possibility of volcanic ash affecting the European airspace starting with the northwestern areas like the UK and Ireland..." she said.

During last year's eruption of the neighbouring Eyjafjoell volcano, more than 100,000 flights were cancelled and eight million passengers stranded, dealing a harsh blow to the airline industry, particularly in Europe.

The threat of a repeat sent airline shares across the continent tumbling Monday, with German Lufthansa, Air France-KLM, British Airways and Scandinavian airline SAS all seeing falls of around three to four percent.

How far the ash travels will depend on the strength of the winds and the intensity of the eruption, experts agree, pointing out that historically Grimsvoetn eruptions have tended to have very brief explosive stages, with the intensity usually subsiding significantly within a few days.

However Gudmundsson pointed out, "this is a much bigger eruption than the recent ones at this volcano," which is Iceland's most active -- having erupted nine times between 1922 and 2004.

In fact, it is the most powerful eruption in more than a century from the volcano -- located at the heart of the country's biggest glacier, Vatnajoekull in southeastern Iceland -- with its plume initially reaching a height of 20 kilometres (12 miles).

On Monday, the plume stood at around 10 kilometres, slightly above the peak of last year's eruption ash column from Eyjafjoell.

"We hope the ash plume will be lower tomorrow.... I think it will decline more and more," Gudmundsson said, while adding that "there are still many open questions."

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Volcanic eruption shuts down Iceland airspace
Reykjavik (AFP) May 22, 2011
Iceland's airspace temporarily closed down early Sunday because of a violent eruption of the country's most active volcano, the airport administration Isavia said. "The status right now is that Keflavik airport, our biggest international airport, is closing. The airspace is closing," Isavia spokeswoman Hjordis Gudmundsdottir told AFP. The airspace closure, she said, "affects pretty much ... read more

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