Smoke and Mirrors Airline Bosses Attack Volcano Flight Ban

As airport disruptions in Europe enter their fifth day, airline bosses are calling for the flight ban to be lifted. Test flights show that the volcanic ash in the air poses little danger to planes, they say. Germany's transport minister has responded by saying he will not allow profits to be put above safety.

AP

In Iceland, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano is continuing to spew out ash as tens of thousands of airline passengers remain stranded around the world. But as the aviation crisis enters its fifth day, Europe's airlines are becoming increasingly critical of the ongoing flight ban, which is costing them hundreds of millions of euros.

Wolfgang Mayrhuber, the CEO of Germany's Lufthansa, Europe's largest airline, expressed himself in strong words Sunday and dismissed concerns about passenger safety as unfounded. Many airlines have now completed test flights, Mayrhuber told the German television station ZDF on Sunday evening. After studying the ash cloud, they have come to the conclusion that the ash has become so dispersed "that there is no risk," he said.

When asked whether flights in Europe were currently possible, Mayrhuber answered: "Yes, that's something we say very clearly." He added there might be "limits" to services. "We would never take risks," the Lufthansa boss said, but he emphasized that the existing data needed to be examined. "No one would fly through a cloud of volcanic ash, but what we have seen over the past three days did not pose any kind of potential danger."

Air Berlin CEO Joachim Hunold criticized the fact that the results of test flights had no influence on the decision of the air traffic control authorities as to whether to reopen airspace in countries across Europe. "In Germany, no one has even sent up a weather balloon to measure if volcanic ash is in the air, and if so, how much," Hunold told the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

Safety Concerns

The German Transport Ministry said in a statement that there is no Europe-wide measurement network that could determine the ash concentration in the air, because volcanic eruptions of this kind are very rare. Indeed, the weather balloons operated by the German Weather Service (DWD) are not equipped with sensors capable of measuring concentrations of volcanic ash. For that reason, the distribution of the ash plume is being calculated on computers.

Several other European airlines have also criticized the airspace closure and demanded the flight ban be lifted, after conducting test flights. The ban was prompted by fears that the volcanic ash could seriously damage planes' engines. A 1989 incident involving a brand new Boeing 747 operated by Dutch national carrier KLM resulted in a near crash and $80 million in damage to the aircraft after the plane flew through a volcanic ash plume in Alaska.

Photo Gallery

3  Photos
Photo Gallery: The Ash Plume's Spread

European flight safety authorities are basing their decisions to close airspaces on data provided by the London-based Volcanic Ash Advisory Center (VAAC). Over the weekend, the organization defended its forecast methods, saying they were "very reliable" and had been proven on many occasions. There are nine centers around the world established in the mid-1990s to help predict, detect and warn against the dangers to aviation posed by volcanic ash.

Earlier on Sunday, German Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer had said that he would not allow himself "to be put under pressure by airlines" and emphasized that safety was the top priority. He said he would never allow "the risk to passengers' life and limb to be offset against loss of revenue."

Lufthansa CEO Wolfgang Mayrhuber responded to Ramsauer's comments by saying it was "outrageous to accuse Lufthansa or the German airlines of putting profit before safety."

Meanwhile, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) said it would send a plane equipped with the necessary measuring equipment into the ash cloud on Monday in order to better determine the dangers, if any, presented by Eyjafjallajökull's plume.

On Monday, European Union transport ministers are to hold a meeting to discuss the continuing air chaos. The ministers will be meeting in a video conference, hosted by Spain, as they are not able to travel to meet in person, due to the flight ban.

"We cannot just wait until this ash cloud dissipates," commented EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas, adding that European authorities were trying to find a solution that did not compromise safety.

'Not the Slightest Scratch'

Several German airports, including those in Berlin, Hanover, Erfurt, Leipzig and Frankfurt, opened for a few hours on Sunday to allow a limited number of flights. Some 165 tourists landed in Hanover on Sunday evening on a charter flight from the Spanish island of Gran Canaria.

Lufthansa also flew several planes from Munich to Frankfurt without passengers on test flights. A spokesperson for the company said that there was "not the slightest scratch" on the planes, despite their having flown through the "supposedly critical zone."

There will be no flights in German airspace until Monday evening at the earliest. On Monday morning, Germany's flight safety agency, DFS, extended the closure of airspace to 8 p.m. Monday. German airlines had already canceled all flights for Monday.

Many other European countries are continuing with the airspace closure on Monday. In France most airports are closed until Tuesday morning. British airspace will be closed at least until 6 p.m. local time on Monday.

Meteorologists do not expect any major changes in the ash cloud in the coming days, due to weather conditions.

Stable Weather Trends

Europe's largest budget airline, Ryanair, has canceled all flights in northern Europe until 1 p.m. on Wednesday. The decision was taken on the basis of "current stable weather trends which continue to blow potentially dangerous volcanic ash across the British Isles, Scandinavia and Europe," Ryanair announced on Sunday.

In Austria, however, flights were allowed as of 5 a.m. on Monday. The question of which routes were operating was the responsibility of the airlines, said a spokesman for the air traffic control authority Austro Control. The current weather forecasts and the fact that test flights had shown no damage to the exterior or engines of the airplanes, suggests that there is "currently no danger from ash and dust particles," the spokesman said.

Stockholm's Arlanda airport is also open again on Monday for takeoffs and landings. The Swedish aviation authority announced that routes for destinations to the north and west are allowed to operate as of 8 a.m. In Norway, Oslo's international airport also restarted operations on Sunday evening, with some restrictions. Swedish and Norwegian airspace is now almost completely open again.

Economic Effects

Germany industry is calling for the ban on night flights to be suspended, at least temporarily, out of concern for damage to the economy. The president of the German Association of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (DIHK), Hans Heinrich Driftmann demanded a suspension of the night flight ban so that air transport can quickly normalize after the ash cloud has cleared.

Since Thursday, more than 63,000 flights have been canceled throughout Europe, according to the flight safety authority Eurocontrol, which coordinates flights between different European airspaces. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates that the disruptions are costing the airline industry at least €150 million per day.

Many passengers whose flights have been cancelled have been using buses, trains, taxis and rental cars to try to get to their destinations. Those affected by the disruptions include German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who finally returned to Berlin on Sunday after a circuitous trip home from the US. She was supposed to arrive back in Germany on Friday, but was diverted to Lisbon. From there, she flew to Rome and stayed Saturday night in the city of Bolzano in Trentino-South Tyrol before returning to Berlin by bus.

dgs - with wire reports

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