Europe's skies were open for business yesterday, but with so many planes having been grounded by the pall of volcanic ash spreading from Iceland, it could take days or even weeks to clear the backlog.
About 75 percent of flights in Europe were to operate yesterday, or some 21,000 of the 28,000 flights normally scheduled each day, European air traffic agency Eurocontrol said.
Flights resumed after scientists and manufacturers downgraded the risk of flying in areas of relatively low ash concentrations, Britain's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said.
“The major barrier to resuming flight has been understanding tolerance levels of aircraft to ash. Manufacturers have now agreed [on] increased tolerance levels in low ash density areas,” CAA head Deidre Hutton said.
“A return to normal will take another 48 hours,” French junior Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau said. “I think the situation will be normal before the weekend.”
With aircraft having flown successful test flights for several days, recriminations have started about why governments took as long as they did to give the green light to the airline industry, which according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) lost about US$1.7 billion in revenues.
“For an industry that lost US$9.4 billion last year and was forecast to lose a further US$2.8 billion in 2010, this crisis is devastating,” IATA director-general and CEO Giovanni Bisignani said in a statement yesterday.
He urged governments to examine ways to compensate airlines, which he said would take three years to recover.
Despite their losses, airlines did save about US$110 million a day on costs such as fuel, IATA said.
The progressive reopening, after the EU agreed on Monday to ease the rules, offered stranded passengers and the airline industry welcome relief.
But with aircraft and crew scattered where they were grounded on Thursday last week, timetables will be wrecked.
“To get back to normal levels of operation from an industry point of view will take weeks,” British Airways chief executive Willie Walsh told BBC television.
Hundreds of Taiwanese who had been stranded in Europe for nearly a week were finally able to return home on Tuesday night when China Airlines resumed service on its Rome-Delhi-Taipei route.
“We're finally going home,” was the refrain after passengers received their boarding passes for the flight.
Nearly 2,000 Taiwanese were stranded when flights were canceled around the continent. Taiwanese Representative to the UK Katharine Chang (張小月) said on Tuesday nearly 1,000 Taiwanese were still left stranded in London.
Her office has been trying to help Taiwanese in any way possible, including assisting them in obtaining visas for travel to the European continent to catch flights home, Chang said.
The economic impact of the cloud has already hit parts of the supply chain and could potentially dent the fragile recovery from the global recession.
PricewaterhouseCoopers estimated a week of disruption could destroy 0.025 to 0.05 percent of annual British GDP, and the same would probably be true of other European countries. Germany, however, said the impact on its economy would be limited.
Humanitarian flights were also affected.
The US military is evacuating war-wounded from Afghanistan to a base in Iraq, instead of sending them to Germany. A polio immunization campaign in West Africa has had to be delayed because the vaccines are stuck at French and German airports.