London: Air travel across much of Europe was paralyzed for a fourth day on Sunday by a huge cloud of volcanic ash, but Dutch and German test flights carried out without apparent damage seemed to offer some hope of respite.
Uncertain wait: Passengers at Los Angeles International Airport. Christine Cotter / AP
British Airways and Irish Aer Lingus highlighted uncertainty over any resumption of flights in the immediate future by cancelling all of their flights for Monday.
Meanwhile, Air India and Jet Airways on Sunday decided to resume flights to the US and North America, respectively.
However, the flights for European destinations of all airlines in India continue to remain suspended.
Dutch airline KLM said inspection of an aircraft after a test flight showed no damage to engines or evidence of dangerous ash concentrations. Germany’s Lufthansa also reported problem-free test flights, while Italian and French carriers announced they would fly empty planes on Sunday.
The Association of Dutch Pilots (VNV) said that along with sister organizations, it believed a partial resumption of flights, with some restrictions, was possible despite the continuing eruption from an Icelandic volcano.
“The concentration of ash particles in the atmosphere is in all likelihood so little it poses no threat to air transport,” said VNV chairman Evert van Zwol.
Through Sunday, a clampdown held across much of Europe, posing a growing problem for businesses—especially airlines, estimated to be losing $200 million (Rs890 crore) a day—and for thousands of travellers stranded worldwide.
European aviation agency Eurocontrol said only 4,000 flights were expected in European airspace on Sunday, compared with 24,000 normally. It said a total of 63,000 flights had been cancelled in European airspace since Thursday.
Many countries including Austria, Britain, France and Sweden closed their airspace for Monday. Russian airports remained open, routing planes to North America over the North Pole to avoid the cloud. Weather experts said wind patterns meant the cloud was not likely to move far until later in the week. They said the dark grey plume rising from the volcano and drifting southwards through the upper atmosphere could become more concentrated on Tuesday and Wednesday.
For some businesses dependent on the speed of air freight, the impact has been immediate.
Kenya’s flower exporters said they were already losing up to $2 million a day because they had not been able to airlift their blooms. Kenya accounts for about a third of flower imports into the European Union.
KLM, acting on a European Union request, flew a Boeing 737-800 without passengers at the regular altitude of 10km and up to the maximum limit of 13km on Saturday. Germany’s Lufthansa said it flew 10 empty planes to Frankfurt from Munich at altitudes of up to 8km.
“We hung up filters in the engines to filter the air. We checked whether there was ash in them and all looked good,” said a KLM spokeswoman. “We’ve also checked whether there was deposit on the plane, such as the wings. Yesterday’s plane was all well.”
Volcanic ash has an abrasive effect and can strip off vital aerodynamic surfaces and paralyse an aircraft engine. Aircraft avionics and electronics, as well as windshields, can also be damaged.
US-based forecaster AccuWeather said the ash was in an area of weak wind flow and was unlikely to move far on Monday. “The plume is expected to become more concentrated (on) Tuesday and Wednesday, posing a greater threat to air travel. However, it is also expected to become narrower, impacting a smaller area.”
PTI contributed to this story.