Volcano fear to ground aircraft for days
Thousands of air travellers face a week of further chaos as airports were shut down yesterday when a volcanic eruption in Iceland sent a massive plume of ash into the atmosphere.
As debris continued to spew from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, airlines were last night preparing to ground flights for several more days.
There was good news for some passengers when the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) announced last night it was lifting restrictions on flights to and from airports at Cork and Shannon and some of the regional airports.
However, as the latest reports from the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre in London indicated that the ash cloud is still over the east coast, the restrictions will remain in force at Dublin airport until at least 11am today.
Aviation authorities warned that the crisis would continue into the weekend and possibly throughout next week if weather conditions changed or more ash spewed out.
More than 60,000 passengers are still stuck abroad or are unable to leave Ireland after Irish and UK airports were forced to cancel all flights yesterday.
The dust spewed out by the volcano could down aircraft by clogging up the engines and damaging the planes' electronic systems.
The vast cloud of ash extends across Ireland, Britain and northeastern Europe. Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Belgium all cancelled large numbers of flights yesterday.
The IAA said the volcano was still active and there was the potential for the shutdown to continue into next week.
"If this volcanic ash plume encroaches into our airspace -- and all the signs are that it will tomorrow -- then planes will have to stay on the ground," the IAA spokesman said.
"The volcano is still active and the movement of the ash depends on the weather. The indicators are that the weather will remain unchanged for the next few days."
The authority has been told by the Volcanic Ash Plan Advisory Centre in London that the plume, which currently measures six by 11 kilometres, is likely to grow today and remain over Northern Europe.
Meanwhile, thousands of holidaymakers could be left high and dry by their insurance policies as insurers claim that the volcanic ash was an 'act of God'.
Airlines yesterday promised to honour their legal obligations to passengers, including giving them refunds or new flights, food and accommodation, if necessary.
However, the insurance industry was pessimistic about people's chances of claiming on travel policies for any additional losses.
The Professional Insurance Brokers Association (PIBA) said travel-insurance cover would vary for many travellers.
However, the Commission for Aviation Regulation said people whose flights were cancelled or delayed had significant legal rights under EU laws.
Irish business chiefs already reeling from the recession are facing another major cash loss because of the airports closure.
Met Eireann last night said an anticyclone to the north-west of Ireland was blowing the ash from Iceland towards the south-east of Ireland and these weather conditions were set to continue over the weekend.
Head of forecasting Gerald Fleming said rain would help scatter the ash cloud's particles -- but predicted the country may not see a drop until next week.
"Even for it to be dispersed by wind and rain takes time," he said. "A good stiff westerly wind would help disperse it over eastern Europe, but that's not the weather we have at the moment."
As the air-transport crisis worsened overnight, Aer Lingus announced that it was cancelling all of its UK and European flights scheduled to leave Dublin, Cork, Shannon, Belfast, London Gatwick and Heathrow up to 1pm today.
Ryanair also cancelled more than 600 flights across Europe today. It will not operate any flights to or from Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Sweden or the UK before 1pm today.
However, if, as expected, the ash remains in the atmosphere over Irish and UK airspace, the shutdown is expected to continue over the weekend.
Among the many passengers stranded overseas were the Irish under-15 soccer team, who played the second of two matches against Holland yesterday.
More than 100 flights into and out of Ireland yesterday were cancelled, while some 3,000 were cancelled across Europe.
The Government Taskforce on Emergency Planning met yesterday and decided to ground the Dublin and Waterford-based emergency helicopters from night-time flying.
The Health Service Executive (HSE) said the plume of ash did not pose a significant health risk.
A spokeswoman for Dublin Airport said she had never witnessed such an incident since her career began in the early 1980s. "This is very much out of everyone's control," she said, adding: "I'm sure passengers will appreciate the seriousness of it and will not want to fly in unsafe conditions."
Irish ferries said the disruption had sparked near unprecedented demand for sea travel.