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.