U.N.: Europeans Should Stay Indoors If Ash from Iceland’s Volcano Settles

Volcano flight chaos to continue for 24-48 hours

April 16, 2010
msnbc.com staff and news service reports

LONDON - Europeans should try to stay indoors if ash from Iceland's volcano starts raining down from the sky, the World Health Organization said Friday as flight chaos looked set to continue until at least Saturday.

Photo: Stranded passengers on temporary beds at Frankfurt am Main International airport, in Germany on Friday. (Boris Roessler / EPA)

WHO spokesman David Epstein said the agency did not know the exact health risks from the ash cloud.

But he said the microscopic ash was potentially dangerous for people if it starts to "settle" on the earth because inhaled particles can reach the lungs and cause respiratory problems.

There is a heightened danger for those suffering from asthma and respiratory diseases.

Epstein said the cloud mostly remained high in the atmosphere on Friday but the U.N. health agency was monitoring the situation closely. Some ash blanketed the ground in parts of rural southern Iceland.

Meanwhile the European air navigation agency said air traffic disruptions because of the volcanic ash cloud would last at least another day. The cloud's impact, it said, "will continue for at least the next 24 hours."

Eurocontrol said in a statement that it expected only about 11,000 flights in European airspace Friday, compared with about 28,000 normally. On Thursday, there were 20,334 flights, it said.

German authorities halted flights to 11 of the nation's 16 international airports, including Frankfurt, which is Europe's second busiest, and Duesseldorf. Traffic to airports in Berlin, Hamburg and Cologne was also stopped.

In Poland, an official in the presidential administration said the ash cloud may delay Sunday's funeral for Poland's President Lech Kaczynski and his wife. U.S. President Barack Obama and dozens of other world leaders are due to attend the funeral at Krakow's Wawel cathedral in southern Poland. On Friday Krakow airport was one of only two in Poland still open.

British civil aviation authorities said there would be no flights over England until Saturday morning at the earliest.

Some flights to resume

However, the National Air Traffic Services said some flights could start leaving and arriving at airports in Scotland and Northern Ireland later Friday.

And in Sweden, aviation officials said they are gradually reopening its air space, starting with the northern parts of the country.

The disruption in Europe, which is affecting Heathrow, the world's busiest international airport, has meant flights around the world have been canceled, stranding hundreds of thousands.

The ash is spewing from a volcano beneath Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull glacier that began erupting Wednesday for the second time in less than a month. It hurled a plume of ash 4 to 7 miles high into the atmosphere.

Volcanic ash contains tiny particles of glass and pulverized rock that can damage engines and airframes.

In 1982 a British Airways jumbo jet lost power in all its engines when it flew into an ash cloud over Indonesia, gliding toward the ground before it was able to restart its engines.

Months of chaos?

A leading vulcanologist said the ash could cause problems to air traffic for up to 6 months if the eruption continued, but even if short-lived the financial impact on airlines could be significant.

Bill McGuire, professor at the Aon Benfield UCL Hazard Research Center, said if the volcano continued erupting for more than 12 months, as it did the last time, periodic disruptions to air traffic could continue.

"The problem is volcanoes are very unpredictable and in this case we have only one eruption to go on," he said.

"A lot depends on the wind. I would expect this shutdown to last a couple of days. But if the eruption continues -- and continues to produce ash -- we could see repeated disruption over six months or so."

The International Air Transport Association said only days ago that airlines were just coming out of recession.

A spokesman at Heathrow, Europe's busiest airport, said 840 out of 1,250 flights on Thursday were affected, disrupting about 180,000 passengers. More than 120,000 other passengers were affected at Gatwick, Stansted and Glasgow airports.

David A. Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association of America, said its member carriers had halted over 100 flights between the United States and Britain on Thursday.

Airlines across Asia also canceled or delayed flights to most European destinations.

Japan Airlines, Korean Air, Singapore Airlines and Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific all canceled flights to Europe.

The Association of British Insurers said volcanic eruptions were not always covered by travel insurance for cancellation and delay, but some airlines issued statements confirming they would refund fares or change flights.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.