(Reuters) – Volcanic ash from Iceland grounded 1,000 flights and delayed hundreds of thousands of passengers in parts of northern Europe on Monday, although forecasters said the situation would improve during the week.
Several of Europe’s busiest airports, including London’s Heathrow and Schiphol in Amsterdam, were closed for several hours due to fears the ash could damage jet engines and bring down aircraft.
Eurocontrol, the European air traffic agency, said about 1,000 flights out of a total of 28,000 in Europe had been canceled on Monday, but it offered passengers hope that the disruption will soon pass.
“During the course of the day, the current cloud is expected to disperse,” the agency said in a statement. “Delays will also be experienced by flights due to congestion in airspace adjacent to closed areas.”
Dutch airspace was reopened from 7 a.m. ET and Schiphol airport’s check-in counters were operating again in anticipation, although an airport spokesman said it may take a while longer for flights to resume.
London’s Heathrow and Gatwick airports reopened after overnight closures, but passengers were warned to expect long delays and cancellations through the day.
Britain’s air traffic control body eased a no-fly zone that affected Heathrow and Gatwick because the drifting ash cloud had changed direction. The restrictions remained in place over Northern Ireland and the Shetland Isles, off northern Scotland.
The Met Office, Britain’s weather forecasting body, said southwesterly winds should push the cloud away from British and northern European airspace on Monday and Tuesday.
The same Icelandic volcano’s ash last month prompted a number of European countries to close their airspace for nearly a week and travel chaos ensued in Europe and beyond.
British Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said aviation officials and aircraft makers were considering whether to allow planes to fly through higher densities of ash.
British Airways Chief Executive Willie Walsh said the airspace closure was a “gross over-reaction to a very minor risk.”
“It can be managed and we don’t need these blanket closures,” he told reporters in London.
British flights face further disruption on Tuesday when BA cabin crew are due to strike in a long-running dispute over pay and working practices. Their union and BA managers were holding last-minute talks in London to avert the strike.
In Ireland, aviation officials said Dublin airport would reopen at 7 a.m. ET and the conditions looked likely to improve.
“The prospects for the next number of days are very good, we don’t anticipate any problems with volcanic ash over the next two to three days,” Irish Aviation Authority Chief Executive Eamonn Brennan told national broadcaster RTE’s radio news.
In the Netherlands, a spokesman for Schiphol said the airport would cancel about 500 flights, affecting 60,000 inbound and outbound passengers; while stranded passengers stared at departure screens and check-in desks were empty.
“This is our national day in Norway … and we have to stay in Amsterdam, so I hope we get back to Norway perhaps tomorrow,” a Norwegian passenger, who gave his name only as Helge, told Reuters Television.
Amsterdam Schiphol is Europe’s third-largest cargo airport and fifth-largest passenger hub.
More than 100,000 flights were canceled across Europe last month because of the volcanic ash forming a cloud over the continent. Millions of people were stranded and airlines, already battered by the global economic downturn, lost $1.7 billion, the International Air Transport Association has said.
The volcano under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier in Iceland has been erupting for weeks and the ash plume has reached heights of 25,000 feet.