- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 20, 2010

LONDON | After five days in which nature brought the jet age to a halt, European officials agreed Monday to let air traffic resume on a limited basis, giving hope to millions of travelers around the world stranded by ash from a volcano in Iceland.

Three KLM passenger planes left Schiphol airport in Amsterdam on Monday evening during daylight under visual flight rules bound for New York, Dubai and Shanghai. An Associated Press photographer saw one jet taking off into a colorful sunset, which weather officials said was pinker than normal owing to the ash.

European Union transport ministers reached a deal during a crisis videoconference to divide northern European skies into three areas: a “no-fly” zone immediately over the ash cloud, a caution zone “with some contamination” where planes can fly subject to engine checks for damage and an open-skies zone.

Starting Tuesday morning, “we should see progressively more planes start to fly,” said EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas.

The German airline Lufthansa said it would bring 50 planeloads of passengers home, and Britain said it would reopen some of its airspace in the next 24 hours.

Britain’s National Air Traffic Service said Scotland’s airports and airspace would reopen at 2 a.m. EDT Tuesday, and London’s airports — including Heathrow, Europe’s busiest — might be able to reopen later in the day. British Airways said it hoped to start flying from London at 7 p.m. local time Tuesday.

The easing of the crisis came as the aviation industry — facing losses of more than $1 billion — criticized official handling of the disruption that grounded thousands of flights to and from Europe.

Visual flight rules allow a pilot to fly without reference to instruments, if weather conditions are good enough so the pilot can see landmarks and avoid any other aircraft. Those flights need to be under 18,000 feet, lower than usual altitude for commercial traffic.

Scientists have instruments that can both detect the presence of the ash and measure its concentration — information that can be relayed to pilots.

The airlines said test flights in recent days by airlines including KLM, Lufthansa and British Airways (BA) suggested planes can fly safely despite the ash. None of the flights reported problems or damage.

“The analysis we have done so far, alongside that from other airlines’ trial flights, provides fresh evidence that the current blanket restrictions on airspace are unnecessary,” said BA Chief Executive Willie Walsh. “We believe airlines are best positioned to assess all available information and determine what, if any, risk exists to aircraft, crew and passengers.”

Scientists and pilots urged caution.

“Mixing commercial and safety decisions risks lives,” said Philip von Schoppenthau, secretary-general of the European Cockpit Association, a union representing 38,200 pilots from 36 European nations. “Our members have many firsthand experiences of the extremely abrasive and clogging effects of such clouds.”

Millions of travelers have been stuck since the volcano under Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull glacier begun erupting April 14 for the second time in a month, spewing a vast cloud of ash that has drifted over most of Northern Europe and is now spreading west toward North America.

In Iceland, meteorologists said the volcano’s eruptions were weakening and the ash was no longer rising to a height where it would endanger large commercial aircraft. British Transport Secretary Andrew Adonis confirmed there was been a “dramatic reduction in volcanic activity.”

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said about 40,000 Americans in Britain were stranded abroad, citing Louis Susman, the U.S. ambassador to Britain.

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