- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 22, 2010

AMSTERDAM | Airlines toted up losses topping $2 billion and struggled to get hundreds of thousands of travelers back home Wednesday after a week of crippled air travel, as questions and recriminations erupted over Europe’s chaotic response to the volcanic ash cloud.

Civil aviation authorities defended their decisions to ground fleets and close the skies — and later to reopen them — against heated charges by airline chiefs that the decisions were based on flawed data or unsubstantiated fears.

The aviation crisis sparked by a volcanic eruption in Iceland left millions in flightless limbo, created debilitating losses for airlines and other industries and even threatened Europe’s economic recovery. An aviation group called the financial fallout worse than the three-day worldwide shutdown after the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.

It was a lesson in mankind’s dependency on air travel, the vulnerability of a vital industry, and the confusion that can ensue when each nation decides for itself how to handle a problem that crosses borders.

The airspace over most of Europe opened Wednesday after the ash-laden cloud dispersed to levels deemed safe. Restrictions remained over parts of Britain, Ireland, France and the Scandinavian countries.

Electronic boards in Europe’s biggest hubs — London’s Heathrow, Paris’ Charles de Gaulle and Germany’s airport at Frankfurt — showed about 80 percent of flights on schedule as airlines began filling vacant seats with those who had been stranded for days. But with 102,000 flights scrapped worldwide over the past week, it could take more than a week to get everyone home.

Civil aviation officials said their decision to reopen terminals, where thousands of weary travelers had camped out, was based on science, not on the undeniable pressure put on them by the airlines.

“The only priority that we consider is safety. We were trying to assess the safe operating levels for aircraft engines with ash,” said Eamonn Brennan, chief executive officer of the Irish Aviation Authority.

“It’s important to realize that we’ve never experienced in Europe something like this before,” he told AP. “We needed the four days of test flights, the empirical data, to put this together and to understand the levels of ash that engines can absorb.”

Despite their protests, the timing of some reopenings seemed dictated by airlines’ commercial pressures.

British Airways raised the stakes in its showdown with aviation authorities Tuesday by announcing it had more than 20 long-haul planes in the air and wanted to land them in London. Despite being told the airspace was firmly shut, radar tracking sites showed several BA planes circling in holding patterns over England late Tuesday before the somewhat surprising announcement that airspace was to be reopened.

BA chief executive Willie Walsh said by Tuesday it had become clear the shutdown was excessive.

“I don’t believe it was necessary to impose a blanket ban on all UK airspace last Thursday,” he said. “My personal belief is that we could have safely continued operating for a period of time.”

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines also sent aircraft toward Amsterdam before Dutch airspace officially reopened, said Edwin van Zwol, president of the Dutch Pilots Association.

Lufthansa demanded and received a waiver from German authorities that allowed them to bring 15,000 passengers back to Germany on Tuesday, flying at low altitude. Other Germany-based airlines also received waivers, for a total of 800 flights, even though German airspace was not officially opened until Wednesday.