Volcanic ash cloud grounds more flights and could bring summer of disruption

6.5.2010 (Guardian)

Air passengers face sporadic flight disruption as Iceland volcano expected to
produce more ash over coming months

by Dan Milmo and David Adam 

The volcanic eruption in Iceland disrupted services for thousands more air passengers in Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland yesterday as the Civil Aviation Authority admitted more problems were possible
in summer.

Flights to and from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Belfast, Derry and Dublin were grounded,
as increased activity from Eyjafjallajokull produced an ash cloud dense enough
to cancel hundreds of services, despite revised guidelines that now permit flying
through contaminated airspace.

The cloud also drifted into north-west England and Wales yesterday, but airports
remained open across the rest of the UK. The UK air traffic controller Nats said
it hoped “fewer restrictions” would be imposed today as the cloud moved in a southwesterly
direction, which allowed Edinburgh airport to reopen yesterday evening, although
Glasgow and Northern Ireland remained under no-fly zones.

“There is no doubt that if the volcano continues to erupt and the ash is of a
density that is unsafe, we will see more no-fly zones,” said a CAA spokesman.

However, the CAA believes the new safety limits, which permit flying through
ash-contaminated clouds when none was allowed previously, will lessen disruption.
“The new limit means that hopefully we will not see the levels of closures that
we had last month.”

Vulcanologists predict that some ash will be produced for months ahead. Colin Macpherson, at Durham University, said the only point of reference to
estimate the duration was the history of Eyjafjallajokull. “The only thing we know for certain is that the last time, this volcano erupted,
it erupted for two years [from 1821 to 1823],” he said. The volcano appeared to
be producing mostly magma-based ash, he said.

The key to flight disruption, and a summer of discontent, is not ash, but the
wind, however. Without the unusual northerlies last month, the ash would have
stayed away from Europe’s crowded airspace.

The prevailing winds over the UK are southwesterlies, which bring damp air from
the Atlantic and would keep any ash in the Arctic. Northerly winds on average
occur 15% of the time during the summer, a Met Office spokesman said.

“Wind direction is actually one of the easier things to forecast in what is a
very complicated picture, but we wouldn’t look more than about six days ahead
with any confidence.”

Airlines remain concerned about the cost of the eruption, after European Union
transport ministers this week played down the prospect of immediate state aid
for carriers. The six-day shutdown of European airspace cost airlines more than
£1bn, and the trade association for UK airlines yesterday urged EU transport ministers
to accelerate the reform of compensation rules making airlines responsible for
their stranded passengers, with multi-million pound accommodation and food costs.

Ryanair has led the attack on the EU261 regulation. It claims the rule was designed
to help passengers caught out by cancellation of individual flights, rather than
the prolonged closure of swaths of airspace.

“It is concerning that the timescale for reform points toward the end of the
year,” said Roger Wiltshire, secretary general of the British
Air Transport Association. “We want it reviewed urgently because it is not a credible regulation.”

Travel insurers said they were unlikely to offer payouts to customers who had
bought policies since last month’s wave of disruption. Many insurers have refused
to pay out on claims from last month, citing clauses excluding disruption caused
by any kind of natural event. HSBC and the British
Insurance Brokers’ Association (Biba) Biba were among those who honoured claims, but yesterday
they warned they were unlikely to do so in future.

Among the thousands caught in the disruption yesterday were Britons concerned
that they will not get back in time to vote in the general election.

Greg O’Ceallaigh, 28, a former Labour voter, was stranded in Dublin and desperate
to get back to Poplar in east London, where he is planning to vote for the Liberal
Democrats. “It’s very annoying. I was looking forward to voting. I’ve never not
voted before, but I’ve just got this text from Aer Lingus telling me the flight
has been cancelled. I’m thinking of getting a boat if it still looks like I can’t
get a flight tomorrow.”


Casper, stuck in Northern Ireland, said: “I contacted electoral services who
said that the only emergency proxy vote allowed is for a medical emergency. To
clarify, I asked if this meant I would lose my vote entirely if flights were cancelled.
The answer was a definitive yes. I’m really surprised there has been no provision

James Thorpe, a spokesman for HSBC, which also offers policies through its First
Direct and M&S Money brands, said: “Although the bank was considering claims
from customers who bought policies before the first problems arose, it may not
do so in future.

“If you took out a policy and a similar thing happened, we would look at it again
… but it isn’t the case that the policy was actually covering you. It was just
in that instance we decided we would pay out.”


Biba, which in April said it was confident that all claims made under its Protect
travel insurance policies would be met, has taken a similar stance, saying that while customers
who bought cover before the initial disruption will be able to seek compensation
if there are any more problems, customers who had bought a policy since would
not be covered. RBS, which offered payouts on policies sold under its brands,
including Direct Line and NatWest, said it was trying to decide what to do about
future claims.


Customers buying holidays independently do get some cover from their airline
if they are travelling within the EU or on an EU airline, but this does not extend
to pre-booked hotels, car hire or any other arrangements at their destination.
Under EU rules, airlines must cover the cost of putting travellers on a new flight
if theirs is cancelled and pay out for any accommodation and food costs while
passengers are waiting for departure. They are not liable for any money lost as
a result of cancelling.

Usually, travel insurance would step into the breach, but a spokeswoman for Holiday
Which? said the consumer group had been unable to find any insurer willing to
categorically state it would offer cover against cancellations resulting from
the ongoing eruption, with the exception of a specialist policy from the airline
Flybe. She added: “The only way to fully protect yourself is to buy a package
holiday.” Under the package holiday regulations, if a flight is cancelled the
travel operator must offer a rebooking or refund of the whole holiday.


The Association of British Travel Agents said its members have reported an increase
in bookings since last month’s disruption, and that the extra protection afforded
by booking through an agent was likely to have been a factor. Sean Tipton, a spokesman
for Abta, said although there was no legal requirement for travel operators to
pay the bills of customers who were stranded abroad, they had done so last time
and customers could be confident that they would do so again in the event of further