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Whoops of joy as some flights resume over Europe

Photographers surround passengers arriving by flight at Brussels

Photographers surround passengers arriving by flight at Brussels Airport in Zaventem. (April 20 , 2010) Credit: Getty Images

PARIS (AP) — Applause, cheers and whoops of joy rang out at airports around the world Tuesday as airplanes gradually took to the skies after five days of being grounded by a volcanic ash cloud that has devastated European travel.

But weary passengers might have to tamper their enthusiasm. Only limited flights were allowed to resume at some European airports and U.K. authorities said London airports — a major hub for thousands of daily flights worldwide — would remained closed for at least another day due to new danger from the invisible ash cloud.

And with over 95,000 flights canceled in the last week alone, airlines face the enormous task of working through the backlog to get passengers where they want to go — a challenge that certainly will take days.

Still, in airport hubs that have been cauldrons of anxiety, anger and sleep deprivation, Tuesday marked a day of collective relief.

The boards at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport announcing long-distance flights — which had been streaked with red “canceled” signs for five days — filled up with white “on time” signs Tuesday and the first commercial flight out since Thursday left for New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport.

“We were in the hotel having breakfast, and we heard an aircraft take off. Everybody got up and applauded,” said Bob Basso of San Diego, who has been staying in a hotel near Charles de Gaulle since his flight Friday was canceled.

“There’s hope,” he said. Basso, 81, and his son have tickets for a flight to Los Angeles later Tuesday.

At New York’s JFK, the first flight from Amsterdam in days arrived Monday night.

“Everyone was screaming in the airplane from happiness,” said passenger Savvas Toumarides, of Cyprus, who missed his sister’s New York wedding after getting stranded in Amsterdam last Thursday. He said the worst part was “waiting and waiting and not knowing.”

The Eurocontrol air traffic agency in Brussels said it expects 55 to 60 percent of flights over Europe to go ahead Tuesday, a marked improvement over the last few days. By midmorning, 10,000 of Europe’s 27,500 daily flights were scheduled to go.

“The situation today is much improved,” said Brian Flynn, deputy head of operations at the Brussels-based agency. “The outlook is that bit by bit, normal flights will be resumed in coming days.”

The agency predicted close to normal takeoffs by Friday.

Still, an international pilots group warned that ash remains a danger and meteorologists say Iceland’s still-erupting volcano isn’t ready to rest yet, promising more choked airspace and flight delays to come.

Ash that had drifted over the North Sea from the volcano in southern Iceland was being pushed back over Britain on Tuesday by shifty north winds, Icelandic scientists said.

“It’s a matter of wind directions. The volcano’s plume is quite low actually, still below 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) near the volcano,” said Gudrun Nina Petersen, meteorologist at the Icelandic Met Office.

A Eurocontrol map showing the ash cloud on Tuesday listed the airspace between Iceland and Britain and Ireland as a no-fly zone, along with much of the Baltic Sea and surrounding area. The ash cloud also spread westward from Iceland, toward Greenland and Canada’s eastern coastline.

The volcano in southern Iceland is still spewing smoke and lava, but the ash plume is lower than it previously was, posing less threat to high-flying aircraft.

In Denmark, civil aviation authorities postponed a test flight Tuesday with a propeller-driven ATR 72 to gauge ash concentration, for safety reasons. There is no consensus among on how much ash is too dangerous and even quantities of ash too small to be seen by satellite can be dangerous for aircraft, scientists fear.

Jonathan Astill, head of airspace management at Britain’s National Air Traffic Service, told the BBC that London airports would likely remain closed through Wednesday. Flights resumed in Scotland, but only for a handful of domestic flights.

Switzerland reopened its airspace and Germany — which hosts Europe’s No. 3 airport at Frankfurt — was to reopen starting Tuesday afternoon.

Some flights resumed early Tuesday from Asia to southern Europe, and flights began flowing to Europe from Cairo, where at least 17,000 people were stranded.

Airports in central Europe and Scandinavia have reopened, and most of southern Europe remained clear, with Spain volunteering to be an emergency hub for overseas travelers trying to get home. Spain piled on extra buses, trains and ferries to handle an expected rush of passengers.

Britain sent navy ships to Spain and France to fetch 800 troops coming home from Afghanistan and passengers who had been stranded by the chaos. The trip on the HMS Albion, a 570-foot (173-meter-long) amphibious assault ship, will take 40 hours from Santander in northern Spain to Portsmouth, England.

One of the 290 civilians, Patricia Quirke of Manchester, said she and nine other families drove all night to catch the Royal Navy ride.

Still, an enormous backlog of stranded passengers remained. Hopeful hitchhikers took to European roads and the technology-savvy headed to Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites to find rides home across the continent.

Ferries on the continent have been so packed that the Viking passenger line between Finland and Sweden opened up its conference rooms so passengers could sleep on the floor.

“No one’s complaining,” said ferry official Thomas von Hellens. “They are just happy to get across.”

Many Asian airports and airlines remained cautious, and most flights to and from Europe remained canceled.

Patrizia Zotti, from Lecce, Italy, carried her 6-month-old son on her back as she waited to finally board a flight out of Tokyo on Tuesday. While happy about getting airborne at last, she was concerned about the ash.

“I’ve read that the exploratory flights were safe, but I’m still a bit worried,” she said.

Australia’s Qantas canceled its Wednesday and Thursday flights from Asia to Frankfurt and London, as well as return flights to Asia, saying the situation was too uncertain to resume flights into Europe.

Not everyone who wanted to could get on a flight Tuesday.

Phil Livingstone, a university student from St. Helens, England spent three nights sleeping on chairs at Seoul’s Incheon International Airport and living off noodles and the one meal a day authorities provided.

“Hope is high at the minute just because it’s the only thing we’ve got,” he said.

Some stranded passengers stuck stickers reading “Lost in Transit” to their chests.

Europe’s aviation industry — facing losses of more than $1 billion — has sharply criticized government handling of the disruption that grounded thousands of flights to and from the continent.

But the international pilots’ federation said Tuesday that a return to flight operations in Europe will be possible only if the final decisions are left to the pilots themselves, and are based on safety concerns rather than economics.

Gideon Ewers, spokesman of the London-based pilots group, says historical evidence of the effects of volcanic ash demonstrates that it presents a very real threat to flight safety.

Ash and grit from volcanic eruptions can sabotage a plane in many ways, stalling engines, blocking fuel nozzles, and plugging the tubes that sense airspeed.

Truck driver Mike Kelly, 62, and his wife Wendy, 60, of Somerset, England, decided to wait out the ash in Sydney, where their son lives, after being stuck at Singapore’s Changi International Airport for five nights.

“We’re heading back to Sydney today. We heard there might be another volcano explosion so we’d prefer to wait it out on a beach in Sydney,” he said.

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