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TODAY SPECIAL
 
Europe attacked for 'flawed' ash response
Airlines toted up losses topping $2 billion and struggled to get hundreds of thousands of travelers back home Wednesday after a week of crippled air travel.

Meanwhile, questions and recriminations erupted over Europe's chaotic response to the volcanic ash cloud.Civil aviation authorities defended their decisions to ground fleets and close the skies against heated charges by airline chiefs that the decisions were based on flawed data or unsubstantiated fears.

The aviation crisis sparked by a volcanic eruption in Iceland left millions in flightless limbo, created losses for airlines and other industries and even threatened Europe's economic recovery.

An aviation group called the financial fallout worse than the three-day worldwide shutdown after the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.

It was a lesson in mankind's dependency on air travel, the vulnerability of a vital industry, analysts say.

The air space over most of Europe opened Wednesday after the vast, invisible ash-laden cloud dispersed to levels deemed safe. Restrictions remained over parts of Britain, Ireland, France and the Scandinavian countries.

Electronic boards in Europe's biggest hubs — London's Heathrow, Paris' Charles de Gaulle and Germany's Frankfurt airport— showed about 80 percent of flights on schedule as airlines began filling vacant seats with those stranded for days. But with 102,000 flights scrapped worldwide over the last week, it could take over a week to get everyone home.

Civil aviation officials said their decision to reopen terminals where thousands of weary travelers had camped out was based on science, not on the undeniable pressure put on them by the airlines, and the increasingly restless passengers.

"The only priority that we consider is safety. We were trying to assess the safe operating levels for aircraft engines with ash," said Eamonn Brennan, chief executive of Irish Aviation Authority.

"It's important to realize that we've never experienced in Europe something like this before," he told the AP. "We needed the four days of test flights, the empirical data, to put this together and to understand the levels of ash that engines can absorb."
Despite their protests, the timing of some re-openings seemed dictated by airlines' commercial pressures.
British Airways raised the stakes in its showdown with aviation authorities by announcing it had more than 20 long-haul planes in the air and wanted to land them in London.

Despite being told the air space was firmly shut, radar tracking sites showed several BA planes circling in holding patterns over England late Tuesday before the somewhat surprising announcement that air space was to be reopened.

"We were circling for about two hours," said Carol Betton-Dunn, 37, a civil servant who was on the first flight to land at Heathrow, from Vancouver.

She said passengers were initially told the flight would be going to London, then that it was heading for an unspecified European airport, then that Shannon airport in western Ireland would be their destination.

"It's been exhausting," Betton-Dunn said.

BA chief executive Willie Walsh said by Tuesday it had become clear the lockdown was excessive.

"I don't believe it was necessary to impose a blanket ban on all U.K. airspace last Thursday," he said. "My personal belief is that we could have safely continued operating for a period of time."

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines also sent aircraft toward Amsterdam before Dutch air space officially reopened, said Edwin van Zwol, president of the Dutch Pilots Association.
Lufthansa demanded and received a waiver from German authorities that allowed them to bring 15,000 passengers back to Germany on Tuesday, flying at low altitude. Other Germany-based airlines also received waivers, for a total of 800 flights, even though German airspace was not officially opened until Wednesday.

Van Zwol, a veteran Boeing 777 captain, was critical of European authorities for failing to consult with the airlines or pilots.

"They put all the experts on the sidelines," he said. "Airlines are used to this. They deal with volcanic situations all over the world on a daily basis, so they are quite capable of making decisions."

The European decision to partially reopen airspace did not come until the fifth day of the crisis, when transport ministers of the affected states met by teleconference. The plan carved up the sky into relative zones of safety where the flight ban remained in place or was lifted according to the concentration of ash.

Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary slammed that slow response.

"It might have made sense to ground flights for a day or two. That's understandable. But there should have been a much faster response by the governments, the transport ministers and the regulators," he told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

But Tomio Okamura of the Association of Czech Travel Agents said despite huge losses his industry was happier being safe than sorry.

"It would be much bigger a catastrophe for us in case of any passenger plane crash. That would have a fatal, long-term consequences for the industry," Okamura said in Prague.

In Berlin, Giovanni Bisignani, the head of the International Air Transport Association, called the economic fallout "devastating" and urged European governments to compensate airlines for lost revenues like the U.S. government did following the 9/11 terror attacks.
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