As British Airports Open, Huge Backlog Remains

By Don Wallace,2014-04-21 19:33
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As British Airports Open, Huge Backlog Remains

As British Airports Open, Huge Backlog


    PARIS Airlines around the world began to confront a huge backlog of passengers on Wednesday after

    six days of European airspace restrictions that forced the cancellation of more than 100,000 flights and

    cost the airline industry an estimated $1.7 billion.

    While officials said it could take weeks for some travel to return completely to normal, some airlines in

    Europe and Asia said they were moving rapidly to restore flights. Eurocontrol, the agency that

    coordinates regional air-traffic management, said three quarters of the 28,000 flights scheduled for

    European air space were expected to fly on Wednesday the highest proportion for days. Late on Tuesday, Britain became the last major European country to re-open air space closed since last

    Thursday by a huge cloud of volcanic ash from Iceland. The move permitted stranded travelers to begin

    making their way home as beleaguered carriers began resuming long-haul flights and some European

    services on Wednesday.

    The International Air Transport Association, or IATA, said Wednesday that the crisis had cost airlines

    more than $1.7 billion in lost revenue through Tuesday. At its worst, the association said, “the crisis impacted 29 percent of global aviation and affected 1.2 million passengers a day.”

    Before restrictions were eased, the chaos had lasted twice as long as the three-day closing of American

    airspace after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which devastated many airlines financially. By mid-day in

    Paris, Air France said that it had been able to restore almost all services across its entire network, and

    had been able to fly more than 40,000 stranded passengers back to France since Monday.

    The airline said it expected to operate all its scheduled long-haul flights on Wednesday and many

    European flights except for those to northern and north-eastern Europe, where air ports remained


    Aeroports de Paris, which operates Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports near the French capital, said all intercontinental arrivals and departures and 75 percent of European and domestic flights were expected

    to operate Wednesday.

    British Airways planned to operate all of its intercontinental services from London’s Heathrow and

    Gatwick airports on Wednesday, although many of its domestic and European flights remained

    cancelled until at least Wednesday afternoon.

    Britain’s National Air Traffic Service said it had handled roughly 130 flights in the airspace over England

    and Wales between 1 a.m. and 7 a.m. on Wednesday and 35 flights in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

    British air space would be largely open on Wednesday, except for parts of Scotland with a “dense

    concentration” of volcanic ash. Aer Lingus, the Irish flag carrier, said it expected to resume a full flight schedule by early afternoon.

    According to forecasts by Britain’s Met Office meteorological agency and the Volcanic Ash Advisory Center in London, winds were expected to continue blowing the highest concentrations of ash westward

    toward the northeast coast of Canada. By midnight Wednesday, the cloud was expected to be largely

    clear of Europe, lingering only over Ireland and parts of northern Scotland.

    Lufthansa, the German carrier, also planned a full intercontinental schedule on Wednesday while

    progressively restoring its normal European and domestic flights.

Officials at the airline said it operated 200 flights on Tuesday and would increase that number to 500 on

    Wednesday far below its usual number of 1,800 flights daily. Most Asian and American carriers had

    planned limited service to and from Europe, although Singapore Airlines later said that as of Wednesday

    had resumed its full schedule of flights. The airline said it was looking into the possibility of adding extra

    flights and using aircraft with larger capacity on some routes. Singapore Airlines has nine Airbus A380

    jets seating 470 passengers each. Even though most European airports were operating, travel

    arrangements were far from normal, and many European and British passengers faced time-consuming,

    improvised efforts to return home by train, road or ferry.

    Further afield, Qantas, the Australian carrier, said it would take “approximately two to three weeks to

    clear the current backlog.” Cathay Pacific, based in Hong Kong, said it was not taking any new bookings

    on flights to Europe until after May 10.

    “We have to be realistic,” the airline said in a statement. “When services resume, all airlines around the

    world will be competing for landing slots at airports, and airspace and airports are going to be horribly


    The reopening of European airspace was certain to be accompanied by a potentially acrimonious debate

    about the indecision of governments in handling the crisis.

    Giovanni Bisignani, chief executive of the IATA, on Wednesday repeated industry calls for European

    governments and the European Union to find ways to compensate the industry for its losses during the ash crisis. He noted that the United States government provided $5 billion to airlines after the attacks of


    “I am the first one to say that this industry does not want or need bailouts,” Mr. Bisignani said in a

    statement. “But this crisis is not the result of running our business badly. It is an extraordinary situation

    exaggerated with a poor decision-making process by national governments.”

    Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said the “major barrier to resuming flights had been understanding

    tolerance levels of aircraft to ash,” suggesting that the authorities had been especially cautious in

    assessing the danger from the volcanic ash’s ability to clog jet engines, forcing planes to stall in midflight

    with potentially catastrophic consequences.

    But, with every day of closings, the cost and disruption mounted and airlines pressured governments to

    reconsider their assessment of the risks.

    Several British newspapers reported on Wednesday that British Airways had tried to force the

    authorities’ hand by ordering 24 long-haul flights to take off and fly towards Britain before the restrictions were lifted late on Tuesday.

    The British transport secretary, Andrew Adonis, said safety had been the “paramount concern” but after

    talking to airplane manufacturers, airlines and scientific specialists, the authorities had reached a better

    understanding of “how different concentrations of ash affect aircraft engines.”

    But, like other airline bosses, Willie Walsh, the chief executive of British Airways, said he did not believe

    it had been necessary to impose a “blanket ban.” The cancellations have cost the United States economy some $650 million, the United States Travel

    Association reported Tuesday, as businesses lost out on an estimated $450,000 spent by every flight of

    international travelers arriving in the United States.

    The closings also caused major financial strains for Asian airlines. Andrew Herdman, director general of

    the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, said Tuesday in a statement that

    flights to and from Europe accounted for about 15 percent of total passenger revenues for the region’s

    main carriers, worth some $40 million a day.

Nicola Clark reported from Paris, Alan Cowell from London and Mark McDonald from Hong Kong.

Reporting was contributed by Jack Ewing from Frankfurt, James Kanter from Brussels, Raphael Minder

from Madrid, Bettina Wassener from Hong Kong, and Brian Knowlton from Washington.

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