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Apr 17, 2010 2:07 PM by MSNBC

Volcano activity grows, air travel slows

An Icelandic volcano causing travel chaos throughout the world is erupting more strongly, a geologist warned Saturday, as the European aviation control agency said flight disruption would continue for at least 24 hours.

Eurocontrol said no landings or takeoffs were possible for civilian aircraft in most of northern and central Europe.

But flights were taking place in southern Europe, including Spain, the southern Balkans, southern Italy, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. Eurocontrol said it expected 6,000 flights in European airspace on Saturday compared to 22,000 normally.

"Forecasts suggest that the cloud of volcanic ash will persist and that the impact will continue for at least the next 24 hours," the agency said in a statement."

Magnus Tumi Gudmundsson, of the University of Iceland, told The Associated Press that winds had cleared visibility for scientists and Saturday would be the first day they could fly above the volcano to assess the activity.

Once scientists determine how much ice has melted, it will be easier to say how long the eruption could last.

An ash plume, which has risen to more than 5 miles into the sky, has been caused by hot magma being cooled quickly by the melting ice cap.

The ash could wreak havoc on jet engines and airframes and the widespread flight bans have cost airlines hundreds of millions of dollars and thrown travel plans into disarray on both sides of the Atlantic.

Gudmundsson said as long as there was enough ice, more plumes could form - causing even more travel disruption.

Airports in Britain, France, Germany and the Netherlands remained closed and flights were also grounded in Austria, Hungary and parts of Romania.

Among the most distant countries to close air space were Italy, where flights over the north were grounded, Belarus and Ukraine.

In a statement prior to the Eurocontrol one, British air control company NATS said restrictions currently in place across U.K. airspace would remain until "at least" 1 a.m. U.K. time Sunday (8 p.m. ET Saturday).

However it added: "We are looking for opportunities when the ash cloud moves sufficiently for us to make some airspace available within Scotland and Northern Ireland."

The French government ordered the airports serving Paris and all others in northern France to remain closed until Monday morning, NBC News reported.

Sara Bicoccih, stranded at Frankfurt airport on her way home to Italy from Miami, said: "I am furious and frustrated."

The U.S. military had to reroute many flights, including those evacuating the wounded from Afghanistan and Iraq, a Pentagon spokesman said.

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 (5 a.m. ET) 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.

Former Monty Python star John Cleese told the Daily Mail, a U.K. newspaper, that he was taking a 943-mile taxi journey from Oslo to Brussels at a cost of $4,600, en route to London. He was due to arrive Saturday afternoon.

Cleese, 70, told the paper before setting off: "We checked every option, but there were no boats and no train tickets available. That's when my fabulous assistant determined the easiest thing would be to take a taxi. It will be interesting. I'm not in a hurry."

There were suggestions that the Sunday funeral of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria, killed with 94 others in a plane crash in Russia last Saturday, would be delayed because dozens of world leaders, including Barack Obama, might be unable to attend.

However, it looked set to go ahead with presidential aide Jacek Sasin telling reporters: "I wish to say that the (Kaczynski) family's will is that the date of the funeral should not be postponed under any circumstances."

The volcano began erupting on Wednesday for the second time in a month from below the Eyjafjallajokull glacier, hurling a plume of ash 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 pulverized rock that can damage jet engines and airframes.

In Asia, thousands of air passengers were stranded Saturday and Australia's Qantas cancelled all flights to Europe on Saturday.

Qantas passengers were being offered refunds or seats on the next available flight. The airline said it was not known when flights would resume, and warned of further delays as European airports struggle to clear a heavy backlog of flights.

Qantas said it had been providing accommodation and food vouchers to some 1,750 passengers stuck since Friday - about 1,000 in Singapore and 350 each in Hong Kong and Bangkok. Qantas said its flights to Asian hubs would continue with the exception of one service to Singapore.

Taiwan's China Airlines canceled a Saturday flight to Amsterdam, after canceling flights to Amsterdam and Frankfurt on Friday. Two return flights - from London and Amsterdam - also were cancelled.

Taiwan's EVA Airways canceled flights to London and Amsterdam on Saturday. Travel agents said more than 2,000 Taiwanese passengers were stranded in European airports because of the disruptions.

 

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