Lifestyle & Belief

Thousands face flight delays as Grimsvotn ash cloud spreads


Tourists leave the Islandia Hotel in Nupur as ash continue to pour out of the erupting Grimsvoetn volcano on May 22, 2011. Ash deposits were sprinkled over the capital Reykjavik, some 400 kilometres (250 miles) to the west of the volcano, which has spewed an ash cloud about 20 kilometres into the sky.


Vilhelm Gunnarsson

Thousands of U.K. passengers are facing travel delays Tuesday as a cloud of ash from Iceland’s erupting Grimsvotn volcano headed toward Scotland, causing flight cancellations and a change in travel plans for U.S. President Barack Obama.

The eruption of Grimsvotn has sparked fears of a repeat of last year’s shutdown of European airspace after another Icelandic volcano spewed plumes of ash into the sky, raising concerns that volcanic ash could damage aircraft engines.

Obama, who is on a six-day European tour, left Ireland for Britain on Monday night — a day ahead of schedule — because of concerns the volcanic ash cloud could affect travel on Tuesday, the Associated Press reports.

About 400 passengers spent the night at Edinburgh airport. A Scottish regional airline, Loganair, has cancelled 36 flight services, while British Airways, KLM, Aer Lingus and Easyjet have all suspended flights headed for northern Britain.

But Ryanair, the Ireland-based budget airline, has objected to an order from Irish air safety officials to ground its Tuesday morning flights to Scotland, calling the cancellations “unnecessary,” the BBC reports.

"Ryanair strongly object to this decision and believe that there is no basis for these flight cancellations and will be meeting with the [Irish Aviation Authority] on Tuesday morning to have this restriction on Ryanair flights removed as a matter of urgency,” a statement on Ryanair's website said.

Experts have said that the ash from the Grimsvotn eruption, which began Sunday, appears to be coarser than the fine ash from last year’s eruption of Eyjafjoell, and therefore should fall to the ground faster and not travel as far, AFP reports.

The ash cloud is not due to reach other parts of the U.K. until later this week. Asian airlines said that flights to Europe were operating as normal but they were monitoring the situation, Reuters reports.

"The low-level winds are ... blowing strongly towards the U.K.," Peitur Arason of the Icelandic Meteorological Office, told Agence France-Presse.

This year, the decision on whether or not to fly is up to individual airlines in the U.K., although they still have to receive final approval from the Civil Aviation Authority.

The U.K. transport secretary told the BBC that the country was "better" prepared than it had been in 2010, with “much more robust systems” to minimize the disruption caused by volcanic ash clouds.

"Most importantly, the basic situation now is that the threshold for most aircraft is 20 times where it was last year,” Philip Hammond said. “We have got from 200 micrograms per cubic meter to 4,000 micrograms per cubic meter as the threshold up to which most aircraft can fly."

But he also warned that travelers must learn to live with disruptions caused by volcanic activity in Iceland.

See a map of the volcanic ash cloud.