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Pain In The Ash: Flights Resume But Costs, Concerns Remain

Travel News, UK — By David Chalk on April 22, 2010 at 8:51 am

First the good news: after a six-day shutdown, airports across Europe began reopening Wednesday, and the airspace over most of the United Kingdom, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Ireland, Sweden and Germany was open again.  Some of the bad news: there’s still a six-day backlog to deal with, the economic costs and the headaches of seeing what expenses airlines and travel insurance will cover, the threat of an even bigger volcano in Iceland erupting soon,and even airport duty free shops are taking a huge hit.

The first post-shutdown flight landed at London’s Heathrow landed late Tuesday — a long flight from Vancouver was made even longer by having to circle Ireland for a few hours before getting clearance to land in London.

The scale of the shutdown was massive, indicating the scope of the backlog will not be pretty.  The International Air Transport Association claims that at its peak, the crisis affected 1.2 million passengers a day and 29 percent of all global air travel.  Through Tuesday, the shutdown had cost airlines more than $1.7 billion, according to an IATA estimate released Wednesday.

In addition to lost revenue, and arguments over expenses incurred as a result of the shutdown are already beginning.  Budget carrier Ryanair indicated Wednesday that the company wouldn’t reimburse passengers for expenses beyond the price of their tickets.  Earlier in the week, however, a top European Union official said that all EU carriers are responsible for stranded travelers expenses, “that means food, drink, and accommodation as appropriate.”  The laws only apply to EU-based airlines.

Passengers who bought travel insurance may be able to get reimbursement for unused hotel or car rental reservations if they never left home or for additional expenses they incurred after being stranded.  However, it depends on your insurance plan and provider, and insurance will only cover what the airlines do not.

Some banks say they will consider requests to waive ATM fees and increase credit lines for stranded travelers.  Some airport parking fees are also being waived for passengers who can prove when they were scheduled to return.

Meanwhile, debate also continued as to how much of the shutdown was really necessary.  The decision to reopen much of Europe’s airspace was based on two main factors: much less ash coming from the volcano in Iceland, and an agreement by 27 EU countries to split the airspace into zones based on their ash content and to allow flights in the unaffected areas.  Scientists in Iceland said Wednesday that the volcano’s ash output was now only 20% of what it was when it first erupted last Tuesday.  At least one airport in Finland had to close again after reopening.

Then there’s the disturbing possibility of another eruption and even more ash.  The Katla volcano is only 12 miles from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano that has caused all the trouble so far.  If Katla erupted, it would be 10 times stronger than the recent eruptions.  So far Katla has shown no signs of activity, but there are several reasons for concern:

Pall Einarsson, professor of geophysics at the Institute of Earth Sciences at the University of Iceland, said one volcanic eruption sometimes causes a nearby volcano to explode, and Katla and Eyjafjallajokull have been active in tandem in the past. In fact, the last three times that Eyjafjallajokull erupted, Katla did as well. Katla also typically awakens every 80 years or so, and having last exploded in 1918 is now slightly overdue.

While scientists continue to monitor Katla, the activity of Katla’s neighbor has made measurements trickier and volcanoes are already very difficult to predict.  A Katla eruption could also cause significant flooding and evacuations in Iceland.

Lastly, there’s the plight of the duty-free shops.  While it pales in compares to the billions the airlines have lost, Bloomberg is estimating that duty-free retailers lost $34 million each day of the shutdown.  Duty-free sales on planes and in airports have already fallen over the past few years, and last year European sales accounted for half of the industry’s $22.7 billion in sales.  Even as flights resume, many passengers may be too emotionally and financially drained to splurge on tax-free liquor and luxury goods.

[Image: AP/Guardian]

Tags: duty-free, EU, Europe, Eyjafjallajokull, Heathrow, Iceland, insurance, katla, London, ryanair, travel insurance, UK, Vancouver, volcanic ash, volcano

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