European airlines try to clear backlog

European skies are open after a week of unprecedented disruptions, and airlines are adding more flights and bigger planes to try to get as many people home as possible.

Volcanic ash forces closures in parts of Scandinavia

Travellers at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi wait with their luggage Thursday before trying to board a Virgin Atlantic flight to London. ((Gurinder Osan/Associated Press))

European airports sent thousands of planes into the sky Thursday after a week of unprecedented disruptions, with airlines adding more flights and bigger planes to try to get as many people home as possible.

Nearly all of the Continent's 28,000 scheduled flights, including more than 300 transatlantic routes, were going ahead. Every plane was packed as airlines squeezed in some of the hundreds of thousands who had been stranded for days among passengers with regular Thursday tickets.


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But airlines warned there was no quick solution for the backlog of passengers.

"Quite frankly, we don't have an answer to this," said David Henderson, spokesman for the Association of European Airlines.

Shifting winds sent a new plume of volcanic ash from Iceland over Scandinavia, forcing some airports to close again. The new airspace restrictions applied to parts of northern Scotland, southern Norway, Sweden and Finland, said Kyla Evans, spokeswoman for Eurocontrol, the European air traffic agency.

A week of airspace closures caused by the volcanic ash forced airlines to cancel more than 100,000 flights and cost them at least $1.7 billion US, the International Air Transportation Association said.

The aviation crisis that began with an April 14 volcanic eruption in Iceland left millions of passengers in limbo and sparked calls for reform of Europe's air traffic system.

Eurocontrol to review rules

European governments and civil aviation authorities defended their decisions to ground fleets and close the skies — and later to reopen them — against heated accusations by airline chiefs that the decisions were based on flawed data or unsubstantiated fears about the hazard posed by volcanic ash.

In response to the flight disruptions, Eurocontrol is assembling a team of experts to analyze the lessons of the airspace closure.

European Union spokeswoman Helen Kearns said Thursday the crisis exposed serious flaws in the air traffic control system.

"Consumers and businesses have paid a high price over the past few days for a fragmented patchwork of air spaces," she said.

The EU has 27 national air traffic control networks, 60 air traffic centres and hundreds of approach centres and towers. The airspace is a jigsaw puzzle of more than 650 sectors.

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The International Air Transport Association, an organization that represents airlines, has asked the EU to compensate airlines for lost revenue and consider making changes to the EU's stringent passenger rights regulations. 

Budget airline Ryanair made a surprise announcement Thursday when it agreed to pay for stranded customers' hotel and food bills after being faced with huge EU fines if it did not.

Michael O'Leary, Ryanair's CEO, has called the EU travel rights rules "absurd" and discriminatory against airlines because ferry, rail and bus companies only have to pay for the price of a passenger's ticket.

In Iceland itself, the Eyjafjallajokull volcano spewed less ash on Wednesday, but was still tossing lava chunks the size of cars into the air.

Geophysicist Steinunn Jakobsdottir said volcanic ash was expected to fall south and southwest of the crater in southern Iceland in the coming days — but he said the ash isn't expected to disrupt air travel between Europe and North America.

With files from The Canadian Press