Flights cancelled as ash cloud spreads
London - A dense ash cloud from an Icelandic volcano is blowing toward Scotland, causing airlines to cancel Tuesday flights, forcing President Barack Obama to shorten a visit to Ireland, and raising fears of a repeat of last year's huge travel disruptions in Europe that stranded millions of passengers.
Britain's Civil Aviation Authority said it appears that ash from the Grimsvotn volcano could reach Scottish airspace early on Tuesday and affect other parts of the UK and Ireland later in the week.
British Airways suspended all its flights for Tuesday morning between London and Scotland, while Dutch carrier KLM and Easyjet cancelled flights to and from Scotland and northern England at the same time. Three domestic airlines also announced flight disruptions.
Still, authorities say they don't expect the kind of massive grounding of flights that followed last year's eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland because systems and procedures have been improved since then and the cloud is currently not expected to move over continental Europe.
Could still be dangerous
Pilots unions, however, expressed concerns that the ash could still be dangerous.
Obama, who had been scheduled to spend Monday night in Ireland, was forced to fly to London early because of the ash cloud - he landed at the capital's Stansted Airport late on Monday. Last year's Icelandic eruption also forced a change in his schedule then, causing him to cancel a trip to Poland.
Glasgow-based regional airline Loganair cancelled 36 Scottish flights scheduled for Tuesday morning, as well as some flights to Birmingham and Belfast. It said its flights between Scottish islands would be unaffected. Two other British regional airlines, Flybe and Eastern Airways, also cancelled flights to and from Scotland on Tuesday.
"Due to predictions on the movement of the volcanic ash, we are anticipating the cancellation of flights tomorrow morning and disruption to many more services," a spokesperson for Edinburgh Airport said.
Andrew Haines, chief executive of the CAA, said the first priority is ensuring the safety of people both onboard aircraft and on the ground.
"We can't rule out disruption, but the new arrangements that have been put in place since last year's ash cloud mean the aviation sector is better prepared and will help to reduce any disruption in the event that volcanic ash affects UK airspace."
Many airlines said authorities last year overestimated the danger to planes and overreacted by closing airspace for five days amid fears that the abrasive ash could cause engines to stall.
Permission to fly
CAA spokesperson Jonathan Nicholson said authorities this time would give airlines information about the location and density of ash clouds. Any airline that wanted to fly would have to present a safety report to aviation authorities in order to be allowed to fly.
He said most British airlines had permission to fly through medium-density ash clouds, but none had asked for permission to fly through high-density clouds, classified as having over 4 000 micrograms of ash per cubic metre.
Even at that concentration of volcanic ash, experts said the air would not look much different from airspace unaffected by the ash, but officials say the tiny particles in the ash can sandblast windows and stop jet engines.
The international pilots' federation warned that it believed the cloud still presented a potential danger to commercial aircraft despite developments since last year.
"It remains our view that when there is an unknown then it is always better to err on the side of caution," said Gideon Ewers, spokesperson for the International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations.
The disruption in Scotland is being caused by the smaller of two ash clouds from the volcano. The main cloud was causing minor disruptions around Scandinavia.
Iceland's airports reopen
Iceland's main airport, Keflavik, and domestic airport Reykjavik both reopened Monday after being closed for almost 36 hours. Grimsvotn began erupting on Saturday.
The Met Office, Britain's weather forecasters, said there have been no major changes in the forecast - that some ash will drift across UK airspace, mostly in Scotland and Northern Ireland, by Tuesday morning.
But the weather in the UK has been very unsettled in the past two days and will continue to be that way in the days ahead, making predictions difficult.
"When it's all over the place, it's a bit trickier to predict where things may go," said forecaster Charlie Powell.
An Icelandic meteorological official said the eruption already appeared to be getting smaller, but Thierry Mariani, France's transport minister, said it was too early to tell whether air travel over Europe would be affected by the eruption.
- Map of projected ash movement