Hope, lack of clarity surround ash cloud
European airlines and air freight shippers continue to contend with a shutdown of airspace over northern Europe due to the eruption of a volcano in remote Iceland.
There are signs, however, that the ash cloud may dissipate in the days ahead, allowing flights to resume.
U.K. airspace remained largely shut on Tuesday, halting operations at Europe’s busiest hub, Heathrow International Airport, though activity resumed in part at airports in France and Switzerland. The changing wind patterns and stop-start nature of eruptions and ash production have made it a dynamic situation.
On Monday, pressure emerged from airlines and EU transport officials to resume flights. They argued that mathematical models used to ground aircraft by meteorological and air traffic control officials were overly cautious and were threatening the viability of the airline industry. Test runs over the weekend and Monday by some of Europe’s largest carriers showed no damage, though aviation experts cautioned that the tests in no way conclusively proved the skies were safe.
Freight forwarders and airlines warned that disruptions to freight networks would necessarily prompt higher rates once services resumed, as the backlog of held cargo would have to be moved by added services or chartered flights. Reports of spoiled perishable goods in Asia and Africa were widespread. International news outlets reported that flower and vegetable growers in Kenya had temporarily laid off 5,000 workers because due to the airspace shutdown.
The picture for the rest of the week is unclear. Authorities are projecting that more airports will be able to open throughout the week, though that’s contingent on the ash cloud dissipating and the eruption losing intensity. Monday provided an example of the fickle nature of the winds and eruption as by mid-day, U.K. air traffic controllers were projecting a 7 p.m. opening on Tuesday for Heathrow. By 1 a.m. Tuesday, their projections had changed as the eruption intensified yet again.
Weather forecasters have predicted that winds may start to push the ash west of Iceland rather than east as soon as this weekend. That would alleviate the strain on Europe’s air network, but could provide new headaches for airlines and airports in North America. ' Eric Johnson