Swiss airspace reopens
Swiss airspace has reopened after five days of travel chaos caused by the eruption of a volcano in Iceland.
The first plane took off from Zurich just after 8am, but only a handful of planes has since taken off and the airport said it would still take several days for services to return to normal.
The Federal Civil Aviation Office announced its decision after the positive results of four test flights and research carried out on the cloud of ash that had been thrown into the air from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano.
“The density of the ash cloud produced no harmful effects on the aeroplanes,” said spokesman Daniel Göring on Tuesday.
A statement said air traffic would resume gradually under coordination from Skyguide, the country's air traffic controller.
swissinfo.ch went to Zurich airport and at 10am on Tuesday witnessed around 300 calm but angry passengers staring at a departure board covered in red.
The vast majority of flights were still cancelled in all directions – even going away from the cloud. What’s more, successful take-offs appeared to be rather random, with passengers able to travel to Marrakesh but not Cairo, to one Turkish city but not another.
British air traffic controllers on Tuesday morning warned a new ash cloud was headed for major air routes, prompting British Airways to cancel its short- and medium-distance flights. There is no set time for London airports to reopen.
It is the worst air travel chaos since the 9/11 attacks in the United States nine years ago.
Swiss cancelled its 400 flights for Monday. There were 53 planes blocked at Zurich, Geneva and Basel airports, while 25 long-haul carriers were grounded abroad.
“Swiss’s flights that were cancelled on Monday represent 42,000 reservations. In total, 170,000 reservations could not be kept since Thursday, which was the day that the European airspace was closed,” spokesman Jean-Claude Donzel said.
The priority is safety, he said but added all European-led solutions to the problem of closed airspace would be welcome.
A total of 850 flights had to be cancelled at Zurich and Geneva airports.
Several meetings organised by United Nations bodies were cancelled on Monday through lack of participants. For example, 80 per cent of delegates for a International Telecommunication Union meeting in Bern were unable to attend.
Concerns are high among the organisers of the International Exhibition of Inventions, which is scheduled to open in Geneva on Wednesday. It would normally have 800 exhibitors and 70,000 visitors. Two-thirds of those showing their wares are coming from abroad.
High airline costs
The International Air Transport Association says the airport lockdowns are costing the aviation industry at least $200 million (SFr214 million) a day.
As Andreas Wittmer, head of the Centre of Aviation Competence at St Gallen University, told swissinfo.ch, “Some airlines could get into serious financial difficulties if this becomes a long-term problem.”
For others, it could prove to be a positive opportunity – especially if airlines provide good customer service and show flexibility when rebooking. As Wittmer points out, Swiss is one of the stronger airlines, financially.
“With its financial resources, Swiss still has some air underneath its wings and room for manoeuvre,” said Wittmer.
Swiss is offering refunds on cancelled flights between last Thursday and Friday of this week (April 23), even though this is a natural event beyond its control.
The European Commission has announced that it is willing to help EU-based airlines offset the cost of the cancelled flights. Swiss Transport Minister Moritz Leuenberger, who was in Brussels for an emergency meeting of European transport ministers, told journalists there that Switzerland had no such plans to support Swiss yet.
Meeting in Paris on Monday, the IATA expressed its "dissatisfaction with how governments have managed it [the situation], with no risk assessment, no consultation, no coordination, and no leadership" and called for greater urgency in reopening Europe's skies.
“In certain areas, the scientific conjectures are like a black box,” said Matthias Rüther, the European Commission’s general director of mobility and transport. He added, “We don’t know how thick a cloud [of ash] has to be to affect plane engines.”
Several airlines have also raised their voices calling for more flexibility, including Lufthansa, the parent company of Swiss.
Volcanic ash is abrasive and it can strip off aerodynamic surfaces and paralyse an aircraft engine. Aircraft electronics and windshields can also be damaged.
swissinfo.ch and agencies (with input from Matthew Allen in Zurich)
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 two millimetres 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.
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