DUBLIN (AP) — A mammoth cloud of volcanic ash is stretching 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers) across the North Atlantic and forcing most flights between North America and Europe to divert into a sky-high traffic jam, Irish and European air authorities said Friday.
Forecasters warned that the rapidly spreading cloud of ash from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokul volcano was projected to reach southern Greenland and the northwest tip of Spain by Saturday. The obstacle was already forcing more than 500 daily flights operated by about 40 airlines to carry extra fuel, because the diversions were lengthening flights by one to two hours.
Air safety officials stressed that the cloud does not pose any immediate threat to shut airports or ground aircraft once again. They said the expanding obstacle would force trans-Atlantic flights into air corridors that run unusually south into Spanish air space or north into the Arctic.
Ireland, which has borne the brunt of this week’s renewed invasion of Icelandic ash into European air space, shut down but then rapidly reopened six western airports Friday as the cloud remained sufficiently west of its Atlantic coastline.
Ireland and Scotland also suffered airport shutdowns Tuesday and Wednesday. They were the first such closures since a majority of European air links were shut down April 14-20, stranding 10 million passengers.
The Irish government’s emergency task force on the ash crisis said the cloud already measured 2,000 kilometers by 1,300 kilometers (1,250 miles by 800 miles) and was being pushed by winds both northwest and southeast.
The Irish Aviation Authority produced interactive maps illustrating how the cloud should grow even larger, running from Greenland to Spain, within the next 24 hours. It said Irish flights to and from the United States should operate Saturday but would suffer delays because of the particularly circuitous routes required.
Ireland’s two major airlines, Ryanair and Aer Lingus, shifted services to Dublin Airport in the east and Cork Airport in the southwest during Friday’s early-morning shutdowns of other Irish airports. Uncertain how long Shannon Airport in western Ireland would be shut, Aer Lingus opted to bus hundreds of U.S.-bound Aer Lingus passengers four hours east to fly from Dublin instead.
In Brussels, the European air traffic management agency Eurocontrol said trans-Atlantic airlines could no longer safely fly over the Atlantic ash cloud because it has reached 35,000 feet (10,500 meters), the typical cruising altitude of aircraft. Until this week, the ash had remained below 20,000 feet (6,000 meters).
Eurocontrol said as the ash cloud has expanded southward, it has squeezed the air space available to trans-Atlantic flights, creating a traffic jam in Spanish air space.
“Flights are having to be rerouted south of the no-fly zone, which means there are many more aircraft passing through the Spanish air traffic control sectors, rather than taking the usual routes over Ireland,” said Eurocontrol spokeswoman Kyla Evans.
Until Eyjafjallajokul stops its emissions, the key to the future course of Europe’s ash crisis will be the prevailing Atlantic winds.
When the winds blow to the northeast toward the unpopulated Arctic — typical in springtime — the danger to aircraft is minimized. But when they shift southward, as happened both this week and in mid-April, airlines’ ability to land and depart safely can be jeopardized.
The glacier-capped volcano, about 900 miles (1,500 kilometers) northwest of Ireland, has shown no signs of stopping since it began belching ash April 13. It last erupted from 1821 to 1823.
AP Aviation Writer Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.