Britain Decides It's Safe to Fly: Skies and Airports Reopen

British airports and airspace reopened today for the first time since massive volcanic ash clouds from Iceland grounded hundreds of planes and stranded thousands of passengers nearly a week ago.

A British Airways flight from Vancouver, British Columbia landed at London's Heathrow airport just after 10 p.m. local time, becoming the airlines' first flight to land -- or take off -- from Heathrow since last week.

Britain's Transport Minister Andrew Adonis announced that all U.K. airports will reopen at 10 p.m. (5 p.m. ET). Airports in Britain have stayed closed longer than other European hubs, due to the threat of more ash clouds blowing into British airspace.

VIDEO: The first flights arrive in London since Icelandic volcano grounded planes.
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Heathrow is Europe's busiest airport, and airlines were eager for it to open its gates. British Airways alone hoped to land as many as 25 international flights in London tonight, including flights from the United States.

Flights resumed across much of northern Europe earlier today. Eurocontrol, Europe's aviation safety organization, said it expected 13,000 flights, about half of the scheduled departures to take off today. Still, some European airspace remains closed to jet traffic. Much of Germany's airspace remain closed until 8 p.m. ET due to a lingering ash threat, though some 800 flights were allowed to fly at low altitude.

"It's difficult to say when we will be back at full capacity," Eurocontrol's deputy head of operations Brian Flynn told "Good Morning America" today. "A good expectation [is] that in about two day's time we would return to very near normal situation."

Near the crater of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano, one of Iceland's top scientists monitoring the eruption said today that the worst is likely over.

"I think it is clear that the activity, the amount of magma that is coming up into the crater is decreasing. It has decreased quite markedly over the last few days," said Magnus Gudmundsson of the University of Iceland.

The volcano in southern Iceland is still spewing smoke and lava, but the ash plume is lower than it previously was, posing less threat to high-flying aircraft. Gudmundsson did note, though, that scientists "cannot be sure" the situation will continue to improve.

Stranded Passengers Cheer Liftoffs

The sound of jets finally taking off was music to the ears of stranded passengers.

"We were in the hotel having breakfast, and we heard an aircraft take off. Everybody got up and applauded," said Bob Basso, 81, of San Diego, who has been staying in a hotel near Charles de Gaulle Airport near Paris since his flight Friday was canceled.

Ash that had drifted over the North Sea from the volcano in southern Iceland was being pushed back over Britain today by shifty north winds, Icelandic scientists told the Associated Press, but Eurocontrol said it coordinated with meteorologists from across the continent to establish safe flying zones.

"It's a matter of wind directions. The volcano's plume is quite low actually, still below 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) near the volcano," said Gudrun Nina Petersen, meteorologist at the Icelandic Met Office.

Ash Plume Is Lower, Easing Threat to High Flying Jets

Earlier today, a Eurocontrol map showing the ash cloud listed the airspace between Iceland and Britain and Ireland as a no-fly zone, along with much of the Baltic Sea and surrounding area. The ash cloud also spread westward from Iceland, toward Greenland and Canada's eastern coastline, but at a less dangerous lower altitude.

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