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As Airspace Reopens, European Authorities Scrutinize Ash Response

April 21, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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European Union authorities conceded they may have been overly cautious in shutting down airspace because of volcanic ash, a decision that has led to billions of dollars in losses. Ray Suarez reports from London on the ongoing travel chaos caused by the eruption.

JEFFREY BROWN: The fallout continues from Iceland’s volcano, as airlines struggle to get hundreds of thousands of passengers back home.

Ray Suarez, still in London, filed this report.

RAY SUAREZ: We hadn’t seen this since last week, jets crisscrossing the sky over London, and more heading up. Every two minutes, a jet aircraft gathered speed and headed into the clear blue over London’s Heathrow Airport, after business losses approaching $2 billion, and countless pounds, dollars, and euros spent by stranded passengers who could finally see the end of their very long, and long-delayed, trips home — almost.

Steve Cook is trying to get back to New Jersey.

STEVE COOK, traveler: Yes, I thought I would be able to come over, check in early, thought it would be kind of a madhouse here, and I would able to beat some of the rush. And to not have anybody be able to answer my questions is a little — a little frustrating.

RAY SUAREZ: On the last leg of their journey, the Heathrow Express train to central London, Laura Maaldrink and Christine Haffsten remembered a long and circuitous route home from Italy.

CHRISTINE HAFFSTEN, traveler: So, we went from Bologna to Milano, swapped trains, went from Milano to Geneva, and then swapped trains, went from Geneva to Paris, where got — managed to get on the Eurostar tomorrow. But then we were lucky enough to finally get a flight today.

RAY SUAREZ: Maaldrink said the unexpected days off were anything but relaxing.

LAURA MAALDRINK, traveler: Arranging travel plans, which changed daily. So, we were Just quite manic, to be honest.

RAY SUAREZ: Like many travelers we spoke to across the week, Frank Ropic, in Southern France for business, found information and help hard to come by.

FRANK ROPIC, traveler: You only find out what is going by Internet and communication back to your colleagues in U.K. You just — you queue up and you get told the next flight is tomorrow, and we don’t know whether it will go or not. So, there’s no notice boards, no — no communication.

RAY SUAREZ: As European airports struggled to reduce the mountainous backlog of passengers and freight, there were unexpected consequences playing out. A Nissan factory was idled by a shortage of parts expected by air, and wounded American soldiers, from Iraq and Afghanistan, had to go all the way back to the U.S., rather than military hospitals in Germany.

And the questions started. Did the air travel ban go too far? Did European authorities try hard enough to keep limited service operating as the risks were assessed?

Willie Walsh is the chairman of British Airways.

WILLIE WALSH, CEO, British Airways: I can assure everybody that the decisions that have been taken are — have been taken with safety in mind, and I have no hesitation in saying that we will fly, but we will only fly where we believe it is safe to do so.

RAY SUAREZ: Running to keep his job as British prime minister, Gordon Brown defended the caution and the ban.

GORDON BROWN, British prime minister: We never would be forgiven if we had let planes fly and there was a real danger to people’s lives. We have had discussions with the manufacturers of planes. We have had discussions with the air safety authorities. And we have had to make sure that it’s safe to fly in particular zones, with a low level of ash, but not a complete absence of ash.

RAY SUAREZ: By the afternoon, the equivalent of the secretary of transportation in the British cabinet, Lord Adonis, conceded, British and European authorities may have been too cautious, in the shutdown, and need better information about the risks involved in flying near, under, and over volcanic plumes.

The director general of the airlines organization the International Air Traffic Association, Giovanni Bisignani, said the fault lies with the way the European Union makes decisions.

GIOVANNI BISIGNANI, CEO, International Air Transportation Association: And reopening the airspace in U.K. was a big step forward, but the situation continues to be an embarrassment for Europe.

Why? Because they were late in taking decisions. Why? Because, after 20 years, we are still discussing of a single European sky. Europe has to take the leadership in speeding up certain kinds of processes.

RAY SUAREZ: Bisignani called the losses devastating, and said European governments should help airlines bear the costs.

For now, the big carriers in and out of Europe are predicting days of delays until they’re back on schedule, and passengers are finally where they need to be. That may involve extra flights and loosening of noise-related restrictions on nighttime flights.

This is Piccadilly Circus in Central London. There’s an old saying that, if you stand here long enough, everybody in the world will pass by at least once. Now that Britain’s skies are once again open to the world, it at least has a better shot of being true.