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European Airports Start to Tackle Travel Backlog

April 20, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As air traffic resumes in Europe, Gwen Ifill talks to Ray Suarez about the hundreds of thousands of passengers still stranded and struggling to get to their destinations.

JEFFREY BROWN: And more from Ray.

Gwen Ifill talked to him from London’s Heathrow Airport a short time ago.

GWEN IFILL: Ray, it’s good to see you.

So, what’s the latest you can tell us on which airports are open, which airports are closed? What’s going on?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you know, Gwen, about half of all the flights in Europe were canceled today, some 14,000 out of about 27,500.

But some airports are starting to show a glimmer of life. Paris is running at 30 percent capacity. Amsterdam is running out some flights. Frankfurt is running flights at low altitude until they clear European airspace.

Denmark is handling long-haul flights only, and not domestic flights. But, just before airtime tonight, the British government announced it was allowing Heathrow to reopen, one of the biggest and busiest airlines — airports in the world. And though it does take a while for a place this big, this complicated to lurch back into life, it will not be the place that I just wandered through empty corridors in a few minutes ago to get here to talk to you.

Staff is starting to arrive. People are waking up in the various corners and nooks and crannies where they have been sleeping out for days and starting to head to airport counters to ask about flights and when they might actually get out of Britain.

GWEN IFILL: It’s probably too much to talk about normalcy, but, after 95,000 flights were canceled last week, when do they expect things to get close to normal?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you know, crews are in the wrong place. Equipment is in the wrong place. Passengers have to be notified and given a decent amount of time to show up for airline — air flights that they were told were not going any time soon.

So, unreeling this thing is going to take several days. And, of course, there’s always the possibility that the volcanic ash could intrude again. But, gradually, things are coming back into operation. And, if all goes well, and if the weather stays good, and if the ash cloud doesn’t interfere, by Friday, Saturday, you should see very heavy schedules.

They’re trying to bus through some of the nighttime flight restrictions to clear out some of the passengers who have been waiting several days to fly. We will see if that happens. But if they can operate more hours of the day out of places like Schiphol in Holland, Frankfurt in Germany, Heathrow here in Britain, it will help move more people to more places faster.

One big breakthrough, flights that are already in the air and on their way to Heathrow from the West Coast of the United States, from Asia and Africa will be allowed to land. They were already in the air when they were told they were going to be diverted to other places, like Brussels.

But now they will be allowed to land here, because the airport is resuming operations once again.

GWEN IFILL: So, Ray, you have been trying to get home here to the states for the last two days. What — what are your options at this point?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, I have to get in touch with my carrier and see if they’re putting back into the schedule some of the flights that have already been scheduled.

And then it’s a mad dash to get in to the line to see if you can get one of those very precious seats. I have been bumped from Friday to Sunday to Tuesday, now to Thursday.

If my family is watching this, stay tuned.

GWEN IFILL: Well, we’re watching. And we look forward to seeing you when you get here.

Thanks for your reporting, Ray.

RAY SUAREZ: Good talking to you, Gwen.