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European Skies Slowly Reopen to Air Traffic as Volcanic Ash Risk Abates

April 20, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Some stranded travelers in Europe got relief as air traffic resumed over the United Kingdom for the first time in nearly a week. Ray Suarez reports from London on the ongoing aftermath of the volcano's eruption.
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JEFFREY BROWN: The skies over Europe reopened to flights today, including Britain, late in the day. But airlines remained in turmoil after being grounded six days by volcanic ash from Iceland, and thousands of people spent another day stranded.

Ray Suarez is in London with our report.

RAY SUAREZ: British authorities had raised hopes that the country’s airspace would begin opening Tuesday.

MAN: The headlines this morning: Air traffic controllers have scaled back their plans to reopen British airspace, as a new cloud of volcanic ash spreads towards the U.K.

RAY SUAREZ: The volcano dashed those hopes. An enormous plume of smoke and ash rolled out of Eyjafjallajokull and headed toward the British Isles, wrecking plans to start the move toward full service today.

Brian Golding works for Britain’s official meteorological office.

BRIAN GOLDING, U.K. meteorological office: The volcano is still erupting, as far as I understand it, eruptions going to between 10,000 and 20,000 feet, which is putting new ash into the atmosphere. That ash is still moving towards the U.K., southeastwards from Iceland.

RAY SUAREZ: An unseasonal bout of April weather, warm, dry and calm, has made the threat from volcanic ash worse, pushing the cloud toward Northwestern Europe, and keeping it there.

The French and Germans began to open their airspace to commercial traffic, but then backed off their initially optimistic statements. As the travel chaos approached the one-week mark, business and government representatives are asking tougher and tougher questions about the European response to the volcano, whether the mounting costs really reflect the risks.

Peter van Dalen, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, says Europe needs to find a formula for dealing with the expense of problems like these.

PETER VAN DALEN, European parliament (through translator): Now, major airlines, which have attached importance to safety, are impaired because there’s so much money being lost. So, we need a realistic, pragmatic approach which takes into account a future filled with the concentration of volcanic particles. That means we need a good, safe, responsible policy that weighs up the proper bans, a balance between safety and the economy.

FRANCES TUKE, Association of British Travel Agents: I think travel insurance policies will probably change a little bit now.

RAY SUAREZ: Frances Tuke agrees that industries and governments have to learn lessons from the eruption’s aftermath. She speaks for the Association of British Travel Agents.

FRANCES TUKE: I think, in the beginning, both the industry and the government potentially thought that this would be a very short-term problem. And, you know, we have got very good contingency plans in place for normal operational delays and cancellations. And that’s what normally happens. Now, this is a totally different situation.

RAY SUAREZ: Vacations travelers stranded in Britain and trying to get back to Britain have ended up seeing a sight they never planned to see from the air, the White Cliffs of Dover.

The ferries have been doing unusually heavy business since late last week. Unable to fly, thousands flocked the Calais-to-Dover route, then connected with buses, trains, and rental cars. It seems like everyone who lands has a tale to tell of two-hour flights home that turned into two days on European highways.

Douglas Arbuckle was on a quick golfing trip to Spain. Just renting a car back cost him $2,000.

DOUGLAS ARBUCKLE, traveler: We drove from Malaga out to San Sebastian. Took us 12 hours. We stayed overnight in San Sebastian at the border with France. And then we drove from there up to Ruan. We stayed with friends overnight in Ruan. And we left Ruan this morning at 4:00. And we had a breakdown in the hire car.

We had to get rescued from there in the motorway in thick fog. And we go to Calais around about 10:30 this morning. Then we came over.

RAY SUAREZ: And he’s not even home. There’s still an 11-hour drive back to Scotland.

Tell us, where were you?

ROSIE WILSON, traveler: Thailand, Bangkok, on Sunday. We got the last flight out, the last flight going to Europe, which was to Rome. And then we have been in a bus going through five different countries and just arrived back in the U.K.

MIKE FIELD, traveler: And it took us about two days to get from Poland. So, we have had an exciting few days, seen some cities we have never seen before.

RAY SUAREZ: You hear a lot of that, acceptance with a world-weary smile, and a story of a sudden unexpected obligation to spend some serious money getting home.

The Niexy family got stuck in Florence.

VICKIE NIEXY, traveler: Well, what was going to be a three-day holiday in Florence, it’s now cost us about 3,000 pounds extra for the extra stays in the hotel, food, and then all the trains and…

RAY SUAREZ: Oh, my goodness. That’s a lot of money.

VICKIE NIEXY: It is.

RAY SUAREZ: And unless they were on a packaged tour, they say they have had to figure out what to do on their own, piecing together trips across hundreds, even thousands of miles, without an airline or a government to help them out.

This week in Europe, you had to pull your own weight, whatever your age.