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

Transport ministers reopen skies, create a smaller no-fly zone over ash cloud.

April 19, 2010, 8:44 AM

April 19, 2010 — -- Commercial planes will soon return to the skies over northern Europe, thanks to a decision by European Union transport ministers to partially end the ban that has gridlocked much of global aviation because of the risk of volcanic ash.

During a crisis video conference, the ministers agreed 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, but the decision is expected to help carriers begin a return to normal operations.

"From tomorrow [Tuesday] morning on, we should see progressively more planes start to fly," EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas said.

The Federal Aviation Administration issued a statement supporting the EU decision, calling it a "gradual, cautious return of operations" that will ensure safety.

Several airports in France and Germany announced today that they would reopen for some trans-Atlantic flights, and British officials said London's airports, including Healthrow, may reopen late Tuesday. Heathrow is Europe's busiest airport.

EU 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. Thanks to the EU agreement, airlines have now lifted their flight bans.

Lufthansa in Germany will operate 50 flights from destinations abroad to Germany, the company said in a statement. Likewise, Air France announced it would operate 30 long-haul flights, including several to the United States, and British Airways planned to resume flights from London Tuesday evening.

Still, not everyone was pleased with the EU's delay in resuming flights.

"We are far enough into this crisis to express our dissatisfaction on how governments have managed it, with no risk assessment, no consultation, no coordination and no leadership," International Air Transport Association Director General Giovanni Bisignani said in a statement today. "This crisis is costing airlines at least $200 million a day in lost revenues, and the European economy is suffering billions of dollars in lost business."

Eurocontrol, Europe's air traffic safety agency, defended its "prudent" reaction to the crisis in a statement that also announced a plan to establish a limited "no-fly" zone based on meteorological forecasts. Planes flying outside that zone would be allowed to operate as usual.

"We're confident once the green light is given to open up air space, that things will be back to normal," Frankfurt International Airport spokesman Robert Payne told ABC News. "It could take a few days for the airlines to re-establish their flight schedules back to the level they were before all of this happened."

On a typical Monday, 28,000 flights would crowd European skies, but fewer than 9,000 took place today, the European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation said.

Stranded Passengers Have Reason to Hope

The new flights are part of a desperate effort to relieve airports around the world of thousands of stranded passengers. Earlier today Britain said it would send Royal Navy warships across the English Channel to rescue hundreds of passengers that have been trapped on the continent.

Mike and Molly Romano of Omaha, Neb. are two who are trapped in Europe, trying desperately to return to the United States. They went to the south of France to spend a romantic week celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary but ended up stuck as very unhappy Americans in Paris.

The Romanos left their three young children behind with their grandparents, and just mentioning their names made their mother burst into tears.

"They are in very good hands for sure," Molly Romano said. "I'd just like to get back home."

The couple finally had some luck today -- with flights resuming, they are booked on one of the first U.S.-bound flights from France tomorrow.

At New York City's John F. Kennedy airport, the situation is just as bad, with hundreds of stranded passengers still clogging the terminals. The Red Cross delivered 1,800 blankets and 400 cots to provide some comfort, but many passengers haven't had a shower for days.

"We don't have extra money to take a hotel reservation," one passenger told ABC News today.

For other passengers, the biggest challenge is fighting off boredom.

"We get up, do nothing, and then get on the Air Train for a change of scenery," said a passenger, talking about the automated train that travels between the airport's terminals in a loop.

The volcano ash delay very nearly ruined one of the most important days in Australian traveler Natalie Mead's life. She and her fiance, Sean Murtagh, were stranded on a layover in Dubai and weren't able to get back to London for their wedding, which was supposed to take place Saturday.

After days of trying to find a sequence of boat, train and plane that could get them to the United Kingdom, they settled into the Millenium Airport Hotel and accepted the loss.

"I was in a flood of tears on the phone with my mom," Mead told ABC News. But with the power of the Internet and the generosity of strangers, the couple was able to salvage their celebration.

They'd planned to set up a laptop in their hotel room and use Skype to videoconference into their wedding in London. When their hotel heard of their predicament, the staff decided to throw them a party.

Four hours later, the lobby was transformed into a reception hall. With her family and her wedding dress thousands of miles away, Mead stepped down the aisle to the sound of "Here Comes the Bride," sung by her fellow stranded passengers.

"[In London] they could see us on a big projector screen ... at the end of the ceremony they filed past the camera and everyone said hello and congratulations," said Mead of her virtual receiving line.

Depending on how long the ash cloud lasts, she said, they may skip their honeymoon and simply head home to Australia.

Air India resumed flights to the United States today by bypassing the cloud and flying over the Arctic Circle, the Center for Asia Pacific Aviation Managing Director Kapil Kaul said today. Russian meteorologist predicted the ash cloud could slip over a third of the European part of Russia and in the vicinity of Moscow today.

Emirates Airlines offered stranded passengers one of the most generous compensation packages, which included accommodations and three meals per day, at a cost of around $1 million to the company.

Airports in Southern Europe Open, Test Flights Successful

Spain, where all airports remain open, volunteered to become Europe's new air transportation hub, The Associated Press reported.

Major airports in southern Europe, including Lisbon, Portugal, and Rome, Italy, are open and are expected to remain open today.

Over the weekend several major airlines, eager to get their planes back in the sky, safely conducted test flights without passengers.

Since the ash cloud began affecting air travel, more than 65,000 flights have been canceled, Eurocontrol said on its Web site.

In light of the successful test flights, some in the aviation industry have called into question whether the massive cancellations were overzealous.

"With the weather we are encountering now -- clear blue skies and obviously no dense ash cloud to be seen, in our opinion there is absolutely no reason to worry about resuming flights," Steven Verhagen, vice president of the Dutch Airline Pilots Association and a Boeing 737 pilot for KLM, told the AP.

Scientists offered hope conditions with the ash cloud could be improving as the latest plume is reportedly lower, posing less of a threat to commercial aircraft, the AP reported.

ABC News' Alexander Marquardt, Christophe Schpoliansky, Matt Hosford, Lisa Stark, Sharon Alfonsi, Neal Karlinsky, Miguel Marquez and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events