Frustrated passengers remained stranded in Switzerland even after a flight ban caused by a volcanic eruption in Iceland was lifted on Tuesday morning.
The first plane took off from Zurich just after 8am to ease five days of travel chaos but only a handful of flights have managed to get airborne. The airport said it would take several days for services to return to normal.
For many passengers who flocked to Switzerland’s busiest airport in the hope of getting home, the continued cancellation of most flights proved a source of irritation. Thousands of Swiss are also trapped abroad as their holidays were unexpectedly extended.
A handful of passengers had been coming to Zurich airport over the past few days more out of blind hope than any realistic expectation of catching their flight home. But hundreds of people descended on the departures terminals on Tuesday with a real belief that they would get away.
However, optimism was swiftly dampened by a departures board dominated by blocks of red cancelled signs. Extra staff standing by the Swiss International Air Lines check-in desks were largely redundant as long queues of passengers started forming at information desks.
Passengers were, by and large, calm and resigned to their fate after days of dashed hopes.
But one passenger, who had been stuck in Zurich since Saturday en route to Delhi from Chicago, expressed annoyance at his perceived lack of information from his airline.
“I had a confirmation two days ago, my flight was supposed to go today, but I now find out that my flight has been cancelled, and they have no idea when I will be able to fly out. I am mad and frustrated,” he told swissinfo.ch.
“When I ring the airline telephone helpline the response is to go to the website. But when I go to the website it tells me to call the airline. I am being given the run around.”
Zurich airport said they were taking the unprecedented situation “hour by hour” as they battled to restore services. By mid-afternoon some 410 flight movements had already been cancelled at the airport that normally handles around 700 movements every day. The number of successful take-offs and landings stood at around 60.
Geneva airport on Tuesday registered about 40 take-offs and landings, about one-fifth of a typical day's volume. An airport spokeman said it would be at least two more days before patterns returned to normal.
The reason for the large number of cancellations was three-fold, according to Zurich airport spokeswoman Jasmin Bodmer.
“Some airspace is still closed in Europe and some airlines still do not have their fleet or crews in position to resume normal service,” she told swissinfo.ch. The coordination of flight slots at airports was also extremely difficult as airlines battled to clear the backlog, she added.
Not over yet
Hundreds of flights were also cancelled at Geneva and Basel airports with airlines hampered by partially blocked routes over Europe. Airspace continues to be off limits in Britain, for example, as it has been affected worse by the volcanic ash cloud.
But there was some good news for passengers on Tuesday as the partial lifting of the flight ban allowed some flights to get underway. The first plane landed at Zurich airport at 9am, an hour after the Swiss airspace ban was lifted.
Several Swiss citizens returned home after being trapped abroad for several days, but there were no wild scenes of jubilation at the arrivals hall. A few family and friends were there to greet passengers arriving from Montreal and New York, but it could have been any other day at the airport.
Most returning Swiss seemed in high spirits and expressed relief to be home rather than anger at their delay. “It wasn’t a disaster, I had a few extra days on the beach,” one passenger coming home from a Tunisian holiday told swissinfo.ch.
Another Swiss returning home from New York had a lucky escape from the chaos as his holiday neatly avoided the flight ban. “My flight was due to take-off on Monday evening and it was the first one to leave for Switzerland after the ban,” he told swissinfo.ch. “It would have been a big problem for me if I had been stuck for in New York for a week.”
A woman from the Faroe Islands was still a long way from home but at least on the right continent. “I’m relieved, it was a very long business trip,” she said.
However, the Federal Civil Aviation Office (Foca) warned that Switzerland might not have totally escaped the effects of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano just yet. There have been warnings that the ash cloud may return with renewed vigour in the next few days.
“The crisis is not over yet,” Foca head Peter Müller said on Tuesday.
Matthew Allen at Zurich airport, swissinfo.ch
Zurich airport is Switzerland's largest international gateway and hub to Swiss International Air Lines.
Geneva and Basel also operate regular international flights.
Bern and Lugano are mainly regional airports.
Small jagged pieces of rocks, minerals, and volcanic glass the size of sand and silt (less than 2 millimetres (1/12 inch) in diameter) erupted by a volcano are called volcanic ash.
Volcanic ash is not the product of combustion. It is hard, does not dissolve in water, is extremely abrasive and mildly corrosive, and conducts electricity when wet.
Volcanic ash is formed during explosive volcanic eruptions. Explosive eruptions occur when gases dissolved in molten rock (magma) expand and escape violently into the air, and also when water is heated by magma and abruptly flashes into steam.
Expanding gas shreds magma and blasts it into the air, where it solidifies into fragments of volcanic rock and glass.
Once in the air, wind can blow the the tiny ash particles tens to thousands of kilometres away from the volcano.