EU Decides It's Safe to Fly: Skies and Airports to Reopen in Europe

British airports remain closed as second ash cloud emerges from Iceland.

ByLEE FERRAN via via logo
April 19, 2010, 8:44 AM

April 20, 2010 — -- Flights are resuming across northern Europe today for the first time since a massive volcanic ash cloud grounded hundreds of planes and stranded thousands of passengers nearly a week ago.

Eurocontrol, Europe's aviation safety organization, reported it expects half of the scheduled flights to take off today including transatlantic flights. But not all planes will be taking off and one of Europe's largest hubs, London's Heathrow airport, remains closed in the face of a second wave of ash that has settled over it's airspace.

"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 days time we would return to very near normal situation."

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.

Upon returning from a helicopter trip over the volcano's crater, one of Iceland's top scientist said today there's reason to hope the worst is over.

"What I can say about the situation now is that the activity is now much lower than it was on Saturday," Magnus Gudmundsson of the University of Iceland told ABC News of the ash-producing crater. Gudmundsson said scientists "cannot be sure" the situation will continue to improve.

The sound of jets 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 since his flight Friday was canceled.

The Eurocontrol said it expects 13,000 flights over Europe to go ahead today, a marked improvement over the last few days. The organization predicted that by the end of the day, a total of 95,000 flights will have been cancelled since Thursday.

The volcano in southern Iceland that created the ash cloud is still spewing the potentially dangerous combination of dust, glass-like debris and ice into the air, but Eurocontrol said it coordinated with meteorologists from across the continent to establish safe flying zones.

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.

"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

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.

"The European Commission has been working day and night to try and be sure that we are able to open the airspace bit by bit and do it in a gradual and a safe way," Flynn said.

European Union officials had been receiving increasing pressure from the aviation industry, which is losing an estimated $200 million in revenue per day due to the grounding.

Officials from across Europe agreed on Monday to create three zones for flying over Europe -- a no-fly zone over the ash cloud, a caution zone in nearby areas "with some contamination," and an open-skies zone. Planes flying in the caution zone will need to be checked for engine damage.

For those passengers lucky enough to be on the first flights out, elation at finally getting in the air was only tempered by a fear of what the ash might do.

"I was very nervous," Lufthansa passenger Dominique Burkhard said of his Los Angeles to Frankfurt, Germany, flight. "One time we had turbulence. This was not so funny."

Britain Suspends 'Titanic' Laws to Help Ferries Carry More, U.S. Offers Emergency Loans

Unable to take to the skies, the British government hoped to ease waterborne escapes from the island by suspending the "Titanic Laws," allowing ferries to carry more passengers than would normally be legal.

It's the first time such a measure has been taken since the laws' implementation more nearly 90 years ago after the Titanic disaster in 1912. Dozens died after the massive ship's fateful run-in with an iceberg partially because there were far too many passengers for the number of lifeboats on the ship.

For Americans, home is a lot farther than a ferry ride away and the U.S. State Department said it had no plans to evacuate citizens by air or water, noting that by the time an evacuation could be organized, commercial flights would likely be available.

For those who have run out of money while stranded abroad, the State Department said it had a "limited amount of emergency loans that may be made available" under some circumstances and will help people send money to stranded loved ones.

Click here for more information at the State Department Web site.

ABC News' Maeva Bambuck, Kirit Radia and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events