Large parts of Europe enforced no-fly rulings for a third day on Saturday because of a huge ash cloud from an Icelandic volcano that has caused the worst air travel chaos since the Sept. 11 attacks. Severe disruption of European air traffic was expected on Saturday, aviation officials said. Airports in Britain, France, Germany and the Netherlands remained closed and flights were set to be grounded in Hungary and parts of Romania.
The plume that floated through the upper atmosphere, where it could wreak havoc on jet engines and airframes, was costing airlines hundreds of millions of dollars and has thrown travel plans into disarray on both sides of the Atlantic.
“Current forecasts show that the situation is worsening throughout Saturday,” Britain’s air traffic control body said in a statement as it extended its no-fly decree until at least 1800 GMT, including northern areas where restrictions had been eased.
“I would think Europe was probably experiencing its greatest disruption to air travel since 9/11,” a spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority, Britain’s aviation regulator, said. “In terms of closure of air space, this is worse than after 9/11. The disruption is probably larger than anything we’ve probably seen.”
Following the attacks on Washington and New York in 2001, U.S. air space was closed for three days and European airlines were forced to halt all transatlantic services. Disruption from the volcanic ash eruption in Iceland was costing airlines more than $200 million a day, air industry group the International Air Transport Association said.
Vulcanologists say the ash could cause problems to air traffic for up to six months if the eruption continues. The financial impact on airlines could be significant.
The fallout hit airline shares on Friday with Lufthansa, British Airways, Air Berlin, Air France-KLM, Iberia and Ryanair down between 1.4 and 3.0 percent. BA cancelled all flights in and out of London on Saturday.
Irish airline Ryanair, Europe’s biggest low-cost carrier, said it would cancel flights to and from northern European countries until 1200 GMT on Monday.
Delta Air Lines, the world’s largest airline, cancelled 75 flights between the United States and European Union countries on Friday, Delta spokesman Anthony Black said.
Joe Sultana, head of network operations at European air control agency Eurocontrol, said the situation was unprecedented. Eurocontrol said it was up to each country when flights were resumed, based on whether there was clear air, which depended on wind direction.
Clear air space that had been over Vienna and Geneva was closing, so they could be affected. The volcano began erupting on Wednesday for the second time in a month from below the Eyjafjallajokull glacier, hurling a plume of ash 6 to 11 km (4 to 7 miles) into the atmosphere.
Officials said it was still spewing magma and although the eruption could abate in the coming days, ash would continue drifting into the skies of Europe. Iceland’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said there was some damage to roads and barriers protecting farms.
“There is still an evacuation of around 20 farms, which is 40 to 50 people,” she said, noting this was less than the 800 people who had been evacuated earlier this week. Volcanic ash contains tiny particles of glass and pulverised rock that can damage jet engines and airframes.