Mon, Apr 19, 2010 - Page 1 News List

KLM presses for end to European flight ban

AP and AFP , AMSTERDAM and MADRID

Lightning streaks across the sky as lava flows from a volcano in Eyjafjallajokull, Iceland, on Saturday.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Dutch airline KLM said it safely flew aircraft without passengers through a window in the cloud of volcanic ash over Europe yesterday and pressed for an end to the total ban on commercial air traffic that has paralyzed travel across the continent.

Other airlines, including Luft­hansa and Air France, said they too were conducting test flights.

Authorities, however, extended airspace restrictions across Europe and said there was no end in sight to the plume spewing out of a volcano in Iceland, which they insist is dangerous to planes.

EU transport ministers are expected to hold a special videoconference today on the air travel crisis, the Spanish EU presidency said yesterday.

Spanish Transport Minister Jose Blanco said the ministers’ discussion could take place during a meeting of Eurocontrol, the European organization in charge of air traffic safety.

KLM said planes of various types in its fleet flew at a normal altitude above 3,000m, but did not encounter the thick cloud that had hovered over the continent since Wednesday, apparently indicating the Icelandic dust had thinned or dispersed.

A KLM spokeswoman said four flights completed the short flight from Duesseldorf, Germany, without incident and four more planes were scheduled to return to their home base at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.

The airline had permission from Dutch and European aviation authorities before sending the planes aloft.

Engineers immediately took the aircraft for inspection as they landed.

Steven Verhagen, vice president of the Dutch Airline Pilots’ Association and a Boeing 737 pilot for KLM, said he would have had no qualms about flying yesterday and his 4,000-member organization was calling for a resumption of flights.

“With the weather we are encountering now — clear blue skies and obviously no dense ash cloud to be seen — in our opinion, there is absolutely no reason to worry about resuming flights,” he said. “We are asking the authorities to really have a good look at the situation, because 100 percent safety does not exist. It’s easy to close down air space because then it’s perfectly safe, but at some time you have to resume flights.”

Meteorologists, however, said the situation above Europe was unstable and constantly changing with the varying winds — and the unpredictability was compounded by the volcano’s irregular eruptions spitting more ash into the sky.

The cloud “won’t be present at all parts of the area at risk at all times, you can see clear area, but it will change, it won’t stand still,” John Hammond of the British Meteorological Office said.

Millions of passengers have had plans foiled or delayed because of a ban on air travel that has gradually expanded over large swaths of Europe since Thursday.

The aviation industry, already reeling from a punishing economic period, is facing at least US$200 million in losses every day, according to the International Air Transport Association.

KLM, a subsidiary of Air France, began test flights on Saturday with a Boeing 737 flying up to 13,000m, the maximum altitude at which the aircraft is certified to fly.

“We observed no irregularities either during the flight or during the initial inspection on the ground,” said chief executive Peter Hartman, who was aboard Saturday’s flight.

The airline planned to return seven airplanes without passengers to Amsterdam from Duesseldorf yesterday.

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