17,000 planes remain on the tarmac

VOLCANIC ash sifted down on parts of northern Europe yesterday and 17,000 thousand planes stayed on the tarmac to avoid the hazardous cloud as travel chaos engulfed major European cities.

Eurocontrol, the European air traffic agency, said the travel disruptions that reverberated throughout the world on Thursday were even worse yesterday, with about 11,000 flights expected to operate in Europe instead of the usual 28,000. It said delays will continue well into today at least as the massive ash cloud moves slowly south and east.

“There will be significant disruption of air traffic tomorrow,” spokesman Brian Flynn said, adding the agency would hold a meeting on Monday of aviation officials from all 40 Eurocontrol countries.

Polish officials feared the ash cloud could threaten the arrival of world leaders for Sunday’s state funeral of President Lech Kaczynski and his wife, Maria, in the southern city of Krakow. Kaczynski’s family insisted they wanted the funeral to go ahead as planned.

Train stations, hotels and car rental agencies were jammed in key European cities by people scrambling to make alternative plans. Extra long-distance trains were put on in Amsterdam and lines to buy train tickets were so long the train company was handing out free coffee.

The high-speed Thalys trains, a joint venture of the French, Belgian and German rail companies, allowed passengers to buy tickets even if there were not enough seats.

Aviation experts said it was among the worst disruptions Europe has ever seen.

“We don’t have many volcanoes in Europe,” said David Learmount of Flight International. “But the wind was blowing in the wrong direction.”

Fearing that microscopic particles of highly abrasive ash could endanger passengers by causing aircraft engines to fail, authorities shut down air space over Britain, Ireland, France, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Belgium. That halted flights at Europe’s two busiest airports — Heathrow in London and Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris — as well as dozens of other airports, with 25 in France alone affected.

A Finnish F-18 Hornet jet had a scare, nearly overheating on a short flight as the ash blocked its cooling ducts.

Britain and Belgium extended flight restrictions until this morning, but Britain allowed some flights out of Northern Ireland and western Scotland yesterday.

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