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Massive ash cloud shuts down Europe’s skies

By Terence

LONDON: Millions of passengers were stranded on Friday after a huge cloud of volcanic ash from Iceland swept across Europe, grounding thousands of flights in the biggest air travel shutdown since World War II.

Europe’s air traffic control centre said 16,000 flights were cancelled on Friday because of the “unprecedented” situation and more would follow, while one airline grounded all its planes in the affected area until Monday.

Holidaymakers, businessmen, celebrities and politicians alike were forced onto overcrowded trains, boats and taxis as aviation officials warned airplane engines could become clogged up and stop working if they flew through the ash.

The International Air Transport Association warned the fallout from the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in southeast Iceland was costing airlines more than 200 million dollars (230 million euros) a day.

Smoke and ash continued to spew out of the volcano Friday, building up the cloud which then blew east to stretch from the Atlantic to the Russian capital Moscow and from the Arctic Circle to Bulgaria.

Europe’s three biggest airports – London Heathrow, Paris-Charles de Gaulle and Frankfurt – were closed by the ash, leaving passengers stranded across the world as a global flight backlog built up.

Eurocontrol, which coordinates air traffic control in 38 nations, said only 12,000 of the daily 28,000 flights in the affected zone would take off Friday, after about 6,000 were cancelled the day before.

Austria, Belgium, Britain, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Latvia, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Switzerland shut down all or most of their airspace.

Sweden, Norway, Lithuania and Ireland gradually reopened theirs, but France, Germany, Russia and Spain all experienced major disruption and Italian officials said they expected to be hit from Saturday.

Britain extended its flight ban until 7:00 am (0600 GMT) Saturday, but said some transatlantic flights would be allowed in Scotland and Northern Ireland from Friday night as the ash drifted away.

Eurocontrol said the ash was moving east and southeast and spokesman Joe Sultana warned of “significant disruption of air traffic tomorrow (Saturday)”.

“It’s a major and unprecedented problem in Europe,” he said in Brussels.

Experts have warned it could take days for the ash to clear and budget airline Ryanair cancelled all its flights in northern Europe and the Baltics until 1200 GMT Monday.

The shutdown played havoc with diplomatic schedules.

Poland had considered delaying Sunday’s funeral of President Lech Kaczynski because the cloud threatened the flights of US President Barack Obama and other world leaders, but a senior presidential aide insisted it would go ahead.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was stranded in Lisbon, Portuguese President Anibal Cavaco Silva in Prague and a UN Security Council delegation cancelled a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo as they were due to fly through Paris.

Even US pop superstar Whitney Houston had to take a car ferry from Britain to Ireland for a concert in Dublin.

In Britain, airports including London Heathrow, the world’s busiest international air hub, were deserted as operators warned travellers not even to turn up for booked flights.

The Eurostar Channel tunnel rail service reported thousands of passengers rushing to get places on its London-Paris trains. It laid on three extra trains but still could not keep up with demand.

Baltic ferries also reported a surge in demand.

As the disruption looked set to continue, many travellers prepared for another uncomfortable night in airports across Europe.

“I’ve been here since 9:00 am yesterday, it looks like we’re going to spend another night here,” Tolga Aydin, a young Canadian trying to get to Toronto, told AFP from his makeshift bed on a bench at London’s Gatwick airport.

In Scotland, health officials warned that ash falling to the ground over northern Britain might cause symptoms such as itchy eyes or sore throats.

The volcano on the Eyjafjallajokull glacier erupted on Wednesday night, sending ash drifting towards Europe at an altitude of about eight to 10 kilometres.

In the past 20 years, there have been 80 recorded encounters between aircraft and volcanic clouds, causing the near-loss of two Boeing 747s with almost 500 people on board and damage to 20 other planes, experts said.

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