London: A huge ash cloud from an Icelandic volcano spread out across Europe on Friday causing air travel chaos on a scale not seen since the September 11 attacks and costing airlines hundreds of millions of dollars.
Significant disruption of European air traffic was expected on Saturday because of the dangers posed by volcanic ash drifting from Iceland, aviation officials said. Airports in much of Britain, France and Germany remained closed and flights were set to be grounded in Hungary and parts of Romania.
"I would think Europe was probably experiencing its greatest disruption to air travel since 9/11," a spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority, Britain's aviation regulator, said.
"In terms of closure of airspace, this is worse than after 9/11. The disruption is probably larger than anything we've probably seen."
Following the September 11, 2001 attacks on Washington and New York, U.S. airspace was closed for three days and European airlines were forced to halt all transatlantic services.
Disruption from the volcanic ash eruption in Iceland is costing airlines more than $200 million a day, the air industry body IATA said.
"At current levels of disruption, IATA's initial and conservative estimate of the financial impact on airlines is in excess of $200 million per day in lost revenues," the International Air Transport Association said in a statement.
Vulcanologists say the ash could cause problems to air traffic for up to six months if the eruption continues, but even if it short-lived the financial impact on airlines could be significant.
The fallout hit airline shares on Friday with Lufthansa, British Airways, Air Berlin, Air France-KLM, Iberia and Ryanair down between 1.4 and 3.0 percent.
David Castelveter, a spokesman with the Air Transport Association of America trade group, said U.S. airlines had canceled at least 170 flights to and from Europe.
The flight cancellations would cost carriers such as British Airways and Lufthansa about 10 million pounds ($16 million) a day, transport analyst Douglas McNeill said.
"To lose that sum of money isn't a very pleasant experience but it's of limited commercial significance as well," he told BBC TV.
"A couple of days like this won't matter too much. If it goes on for weeks, that's a different story."
In France, state-controlled airports operator Aeroports de Paris faced losses of 5 million euros a day or more, analysts said.
Joe Sultana, head of network operations at European air control agency Eurocontrol, said the situation was unprecedented.
"We understand the economic impact, both to the airlines and the general European economy, but safety comes first," he said.
The volcano began erupting on Wednesday for the second time in a month from below the Eyjafjallajokull glacier, hurling a plume of ash 6 to 11 km (4 to 7 miles) into the atmosphere.
Officials said it was still spewing magma and although the eruption could abate in the coming days, ash would continue drifting into the skies of Europe.
Volcanic ash contains tiny particles of glass and pulverized rock that can damage engines and airframes.
In addition to travel problems, health officials warned that the volcanic ash could also prove harmful to those with breathing difficulties.
In 1982, a British Airways jumbo jet lost power in all its engines when it flew into an ash cloud over Indonesia, gliding toward the ground before it was able to restart its engines.
The incident prompted the aviation industry to rethink the way it prepared for ash clouds.
In Brussels, European aviation control officials told a news conference that some 12,000 to 13,000 flights were likely to operate in European airspace on Friday, compared with about 29,500 normally. The ash was expected to spread further south and east.
An official at the World Meteorological Organization said it was impossible to say when flights would resume.
"We can only predict the time that flights will resume after the eruption has stopped, but for as long as the eruption is still going on and still leading to a significant eruption, we cannot say," said Scylla Sillayo, a senior official in the WMO's aeronautical meteorology unit.
Polish officials said Sunday's funeral for President Lech Kaczynski and his wife who were killed in a plane crash last Saturday looked set to go ahead as planned.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, returning from a trip to the United States, was diverted to Portugal and was expected to spend the night in Lisbon.
The air problems have proved a boon for other transport firms. All 58 Eurostar trains between Britain and Europe were operating full, carrying some 46,500 passengers, and a spokeswoman said they would consider adding more services.
London taxi firm Addison Lee said it had taken requests for journeys to Paris, Milan, Zurich and Salzburg in Austria.
First Published: Friday, April 16, 2010, 23:55