Air travel remained heavily restricted over Europe Monday morning despite weekend pressure from money-hemorrhaging carriers who say there has been no damage to test-flights they have conducted.
Representatives of European airlines and airports called for an "immediate reassessment" of restrictions on flights.
"While Europe's airlines and airports consider safety to be an absolute priority, they are questioning the proportionality of the flight restrictions currently imposed," according to a statement issued by Airports Council International Europe and the Association of European Airlines.
We are asking the authorities to really have a good look at the situation, because 100 per cent safety does not exist. Steven Verhagen, vice-president of the Dutch Airline Pilots' Association
"The eruption of the Icelandic volcano is not an unprecedented event and the procedures applied in other parts of the world for volcanic eruptions do not appear to require the kind of restrictions that are presently being imposed in Europe."
European Union officials were optimistic that, depending on weather, flights could begin again Monday over as much as half of the continent. "We cannot wait until the ash flows just disappear," European Union Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas said as EU ministers prepared to discuss the matter Monday.
But announcements from several of the biggest countries undercut that optimism. Several German airports resumed limited functionality Sunday before being closed again last night. British airspace was to be closed until at least Monday afternoon and British Airways cancelled all its Monday flights. Most airports in France, including Charles de Gaulle in Paris, will remain closed until Tuesday morning at the earliest.
Trans-Atlantic and continental flights have been largely suspended since Thursday because an ash cloud caused by a volcano eruption in Iceland. The shutdown has been costing airlines an estimated $200-million daily at a time when they can ill afford it.
The extraordinary grounding has thrown into chaos the travel plans of millions and raised fears about the deliveries of pharmaceuticals, donor organs and fresh food. And it has sparked an increasing backlash from critics who say it relied on theory rather than real-world tests.
"Everyone's basing decisions on estimates from computer simulations," said a spokesman for Lufthansa, the German carrier. "We need additional tests and analysis, test flights need to be done. But this is not being done quickly enough."
Several airlines received permission over the weekend to send up test aircraft but some executives expressed frustration that these tests had no apparent effect on the regulators' position.
"We are amazed that the results obtained from test flights carried out by Lufthansa and Air Berlin … did not have any influence whatsoever on the decisions taken by the aviation safety authorities," said Joachim Hunold, head of Air Berlin, Germany's second largest airline.
Aboard one of the planes Dutch carrier KLM sent aloft was company CEO Peter Hartman, who said there was "nothing unusual" about the flight. He said that, if initial assessments of the aircraft bore out, they hoped to get permission to start flying again "as soon as possible."
The airline had been cleared to fly a small number of cargo planes out of Europe Sunday night.
The flight ban is based on an International Civil Aviation Organization policy that is now facing scrutiny.
"In many respects the guidelines are highly detailed though they make no distinction at all between major or relatively modest eruptions," Richard North, co-author of Scared To Death - From BSE To Global Warming: Why Scares Are Costing Us The Earth, wrote in an op-ed in Sunday's Daily Telegraph newspaper.
"Using as its model the largest and most dangerous of Icelandic volcanoes, the Katla volcano, it offered a series of procedures for monitoring and tracking volcano ash clouds and 'advice' to be given to airlines in the event of a volcano eruption. This current eruption is a relatively modest affair - certainly not at all in the league of Katla."
Questions about the scale of the reaction began to emerge almost immediately after airspace was clamped shut. On Friday, an unsigned article posted online by the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation noted that the decision was costing the regulators nothing.
"Is this a massive over-reaction of super-cautious politicians and bureaucrats who are far more concerned about their own liability - while suffering none of the financial carnage that this will cause the airlines and their feeding chain? Or is it a genuinely serious event that justified shutting down most of Europe's airspace?"
And on the weekend Steven Verhagen, vice-president of the Dutch Airline Pilots' Association, pointed out that risk can never be entirely eliminated.
"We are asking the authorities to really have a good look at the situation, because 100 per cent safety does not exist," he said. "It's easy to close down air space because then it's perfectly safe. But at some time you have to resume flights."