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In Europe, Costs Mount From Quiet Skies as Volcano Eruption Continues

April 19, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Officials announced limited air traffic may resume on Tuesday, five days after volcanic ash grounded much of the air traffic in and out of Northern Europe. Ray Suarez reports from London.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Airlines and stranded passengers across Europe pressed for action today to get planes flying again. And European Union officials moved to break the grip of that volcanic ash cloud from Iceland.

Ray Suarez is in London with this report.

RAY SUAREZ: Today brought another day of empty skies, quiet skies, and costly skies, from the hundreds of millions already lost by grounded airlines and the anticipated millions in losses to come, to the mangoes not being shipped through a big British importer, to a flower seller in London’s Soho for more than 40 years.

Facing his election opponents once again this week and the British voters in a few weeks, Prime Minister Gordon Brown ordered the Royal Navy to pick up scattered and stranded British subjects.

GORDON BROWN, British prime minister: Ark Royal will be sent to the channel. Equally, HMS Ocean will be available at channel ports as soon as possible to help people come to Britain.

RAY SUAREZ: The safety and operations editor for a leading international aviation news service, David Learmount says the caution surrounding opening airports in the world’s most crowded airspace is understandable.

DAVID LEARMOUNT, FlightGlobal.com: The reason why the air traffic control organization has said controlled airspace is closed at the moment and you may not use it is because they know there is a risk. They don’t know what the size of that risk is. And that’s not their fault.

RAY SUAREZ: Part of the problem, Learmount says, is that, after previous eruptions, there was a response that always worked.

DAVID LEARMOUNT: The way that aviation has always dealt with volcanic ash clouds in the past is to say we know where they are. Let’s fly around them.

RAY SUAREZ: But pressure is building on European regulators to get jets airborne and stop the catastrophic losses.

GIOVANNI BISIGNANI, CEO, International Air Transportation Association: It’s embarrassing. And it’s a European mess. We did not have the needed leadership. It took five days to organize a conference call with minister of transport. And we were losing $200 million revenues a day, 750,000 passengers stranded all over. Does it make sense?

RAY SUAREZ: There’s been a wide range of reaction to being stranded, from testy to serene. This Egyptian businessman has been sleeping at Heathrow Airport since Saturday.

TARIQ SULEIMAN, stranded traveler: I’m very — I’m very angry. I want to get home again. And no — nobody is take — take care about us. Can you tell me what we can do, even if we — if we are finished our money, what — what we can do?

RAY SUAREZ: A teacher from Palermo leading a group of 39 Italian high schoolers through Britain is wondering what to do with them next.

PIETRO LO’LACONO, teacher: We have been here for five days. And we are going to leave, but, coming here, we are finding the situation, this terrible situation. And we are trying to listen to further information, to — further instructions about — we are limbo passengers, suspended, waiting for, but we don’t know.

RAY SUAREZ: And Virginian Loretta Knauth says the delay was fun, at first.

LORETTA KNAUTH, stranded traveler: And so I have my largest fund-raiser. I have 4,000 people at an event on Thursday. And I’m not there. And I have spent the last nine months planning it for my work. And then I’m stuck here. And this was fun a day or two. But now it’s more than stressful.

RAY SUAREZ: The Allens from Oklahoma City are now nervously cutting back on meals as the expense of unplanned four days in London are taking their toll.

RON ALLEN, stranded traveler: If we get delayed past Saturday, military hop or ship, we’re going one — one way or the other.

RAY SUAREZ: One reason hundreds of thousands of people are stuck is that the weather is stuck too. Now, normally, in April, in Northwestern Europe, the prevailing winds and the frequent rains would have long since broken up that cloud of volcanic ash and smoke. Instead, a weather system has stalled over Northwestern Europe and the British Isles, leaving the volcanic cloud right where it is.

In other words, it’s not the volcano. It’s the weather, which means the only things flying over Heathrow, until at least tomorrow, are the birds.

In the village of Stanwell Moor, the horses can relax underneath what is normally the flight path of Heathrow, one of the world’s busiest airports.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Lovely. You can talk to people, barbecue. You can talk to people.

RAY SUAREZ: That silence comes at a golden price for others.

ANTHONY PILE, Blue Skies LTD. I was talking to a West African in London who wanted us to get into the cashew business, nuts. When somebody told us that — told me that — on my BlackBerry that the business had come to a grinding halt.

RAY SUAREZ: Blue Skies Limited imports so much tropical produce, particularly mangoes from Ghana in West Africa, that this one business represents 1 percent of the Ghanaian gross national product.

Anthony Pile employs thousands in the United Kingdom and Africa, imports 30 tons of fruit a day, and runs four factories. His reliance on air shipping made him vulnerable to big losses when planes were grounded.

ANTHONY PILE: It doesn’t matter who you are, whether you’re a television station or you’re a manufacturer, like we are. If you stop the revenue, there comes a point when you simply go. And we are, at this moment, in a series of meetings looking at a series of scenarios.

RAY SUAREZ: Ronnie’s flower shop is one of globalization’s many ground zero.

RONNIE STANNETT, flower shop: They fill a plane up with — of just flowers. And then they distribute it to Manchester to Birmingham and all over the place.

RAY SUAREZ: And those flowers are already starting to disappear from local flower markets. Fruits and vegetables from Africa and the Middle East will soon follow.

For those who have had enough of uncertainty, there’s the option of a long-haul bus to a ferry and more buses to head deeper into Europe. But even a 15- or 20-hour bus ride could mean waiting for days for a ticket. Big European carriers have sent test flights up over the last few days, and reporting good results, safe conditions, no engine damage.

The displaced have seen surprising mini-vacations turn into lost wages, missed appointments and heavy out-of-pocket expenses. Relief may be coming. The German carrier Lufthansa will be the first big airline back in service, with flights starting tonight, slowly chipping away at an enormous backlog.

KLAUS WALTHER, spokesperson, Lufthansa (through translator): Our advice for clients and passengers is to follow information exactly from the Internet or call centers to check if their flight can depart. It will take a while until normal flight traffic resumes.

RAY SUAREZ: And France is now telling carriers using its airspace they can gradually begin flying again in designated caution zones.