Air-Travel Chaos Spreads as Volcano Ash Lingers

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Torsten Silz / AFP / Getty Images

A passenger sleeps as he waits for the resumption of air travel on April 16, 2010 at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany

For Kotryna Toropovaite, April 15 was meant to begin with a flight and end with a joyous reunion. After months of back-and-forth traveling between Vilnius, Lithuania, and London, the Lithuanian lawyer was finally moving to Britain to live with Eric, her boyfriend of eight months. Distance has never stood in the way of their love, but for the time being, a toxic plume of volcanic ash most certainly is. "All the flights are canceled from Vilnius to northern Europe," she says, after spending hours researching travel alternatives. "I could take a bus, but that will take 39 hours. " The story gets worse: her birthday is Saturday.

Thousands of stranded passengers share Toropovaite's frustration. The eruption of a volcano beneath Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull (pronounced ay-yah-FYAH-plah-yer-kuh-duhl) glacier has caused the biggest flight disruption since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, derailing plans for business travelers, tourists and even European royalty. The high-altitude cloud of smoke — tiny particles of rock, glass and sand, contained in the ash cloud, that can clog an aircraft's ventilation holes and stall its engines — continues to spread across northern and central Europe, forcing aviation officials to ground airplanes from London to Hong Kong to New York. For the first time, on Friday, April 16, an international agency warned of potential health risks. In Geneva, the World Health Organization said people with respiratory problems should "limit their activities outdoors or stay indoors" if ash started falling from the sky.

Eurocontrol, the aviation body that coordinates flights in Europe, estimates that 6,000 of the 28,000 daily flights across Europe were canceled Thursday, April 15. In Britain, authorities canceled all nonemergency flights to and from the country. At London's Heathrow Airport, one of the world's busiest, the eruption affected 1,200 flights and some 180,000 passengers. By early Friday, Britain's National Air Traffic Service remained unsure of when things may return to normal. "In general, the situation cannot be said to be improving with any certainty," the organization said in a statement, adding that "restrictions on all flights in and out of England and Wales will remain in place until at least 0700 BST [2 a.m. ET] Saturday." But in parts of Scottish airspace and Northern Ireland, the situation has eased, with restrictions lifted at 19:00 BST Friday (2 p.m. ET), which means that some North Atlantic traffic will be able to operate to and from points there.

By Friday morning, civil-aviation authorities in Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Finland, Norway and Sweden had closed all or parts of their airspaces. In France, officials shut down 24 airports, including Paris' Charles de Gaulle. In Germany, authorities closed 12 of the country's 16 airports, including Berlin, Frankfurt and Hamburg. Eurocontrol estimates that roughly half of the 600 transatlantic flights scheduled for Friday have been canceled.

The chaos has affected travelers in the Asia-Pacific region too. Monica Rouse, an Australian fashion designer living in London, had plans to return to Sydney Thursday morning on Qantas, the Australian carrier, to secure important documents for her British work visa. She received a text message that her flight was canceled but says Qantas is ill prepared to deal with the volume of complaints. "When I called, the girl could only tell me, 'You're not leaving today,' " she says. "If we don't call you in four hours, call us back."

The sudden eruption caused a mild panic on flights already airborne. Kuenga Wangmo, a doctoral student at Cambridge University, was on a British Airways flight from Delhi to London when she learned of the news. "I was woken up when the captain announced that British airspace was contaminated by ash from an Icelandic volcano," she says. "I had no idea what was happening. Some of the passengers were nervous, especially those flying on to Canada." Wangmo's flight was one of the last to land at Heathrow on Thursday.

Even royalty has had to bow to Mother Nature. Several monarchs have been delayed in their efforts to attend a celebration of the 70th birthday of Denmark's Queen Margrethe. Despite RSVPing for the festivities, which began Thursday night, Norway's King Harald, Spain's King Juan Carlos and Sweden's King Carl Gustav have yet to appear in Copenhagen. Elsewhere, Norway's Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, who had been attending President Obama's nuclear summit, is stuck in New York. According to his press secretary, the Premier is "running the Norwegian government from the United States via his new iPad." As for Obama, he and other world leaders are facing difficulties in attending the state funeral Sunday of President Lech Kaczynski of Poland and his wife. Warsaw's airport is currently closed, and the region is likely to face severe disruptions to air travel for at least another 24 hours.

But amid the ash, there are a few glints of hope. By Friday afternoon, Sweden was gradually reopening its northern airspace, six planes were permitted to fly into and out of England's Manchester Airport, and a limited number of flights were departing from Northern Ireland and southwest England. As for other modes of transport, Eurostar trains reported a complete sellout of its services to Brussels and Paris for a second day on Friday. Rail and ferry services are also reporting rises in their passenger numbers.

Back in Vilnius, Toropovaite is still sorting out how she'll get to her boyfriend. She briefly had plans to take a train from Vilnius to Warsaw to Paris, but scratched that when France began shutting its airports. She now has a flight booked on Sunday that will take her to Riga, Latvia, where she will wait for five hours for a flight to London that may or may not take off. "I'm not optimistic," she says. "But I can't be angry at anyone. It's nobody's fault. This is a volcano."