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Hard to predict how long volcanic ash from eruption in Iceland could disrupt air traffic Add to ...

Air traffic halted

As the ash cloud blew across the North AtlanticThursday, airports more than 1,700 kilometres away were forced to close. In Europe, thousands of passengers found themselves stranded as airports announced they would ground all flights until at least Friday morning. Air Canada cancelled all flights between London, Paris and Frankfurt and Canadian destinations. In Britain, the major international hub, Heathrow, which processes 180,000 passengers every day, was also shuttered. Belgium, Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden all shut down their airspace. Germany, Finland and Spain experienced major disruptions, and thousands of passengers were stranded.

In France, aviation authorities said they would close 24 airports and Air France announced it had booked 1,400 hotel rooms for passengers already in transit in Paris whose flights had been cancelled. As for Iceland, its airports remained open, as the wind kept local airspace free of threat.

How long will it last?

Meteorological authorities across Europe have their eyes trained on the cloud of volcanic ash, trying to predict its route and how long it will disrupt global air traffic. The eruption of Eyjafjallajokull (pronounced ay-yah-FYAH'-plah-yer-kuh-duhl) volcano in southeast Iceland just after midnight on Wednesday sent a plume of ash more than 20,000 feet into the sky.

The cloud has already been blown over the United Kingdom, and Thursday it continued to travel south at an altitude of about eight to 10 kilometres. Where it ends up, or how long it will last, is also up in the air. The last eruption under the glacier at Eyjafjallajokull occurred in 1821 and lasted, off and on, until 1823. Some experts predicted that another prolonged eruption could affect air traffic for up to six months.

When Mount St. Helens erupted in the United States in 1980, the plume of ash reached 90,000 feet in half an hour and had circled the globe in two weeks.

While the clouds can be deadly to aircraft, they are difficult to see from the ground. But the ash is expected to improve sunsets over Europe by creating volcanic aerosol, a mix of ash and sulphur compounds that reflects setting sun and produces a vivid hue called "volcanic lavender."

Volcanic ash and airplanes

At 36,000 feet, it's not easy to distinguish a cloud of volcanic ash from a cloud of water vapour. But in June, 1982, the pilots of British Airways Flight 009 quickly learned the difference. What's known as the "Jakarta Incident' saw the Boeing 747 lose power in all four engines after flying into a volcanic cloud caused by the eruption of Mount Galunggung in Indonesia.

Although it was dark, the skies appeared clear and the radar showed no cause for concern when the co-pilot began noticing flecks of light against the windscreen. The plane seemed to be shrouded in white light, and the temperature in the cabin shot up. One by one, the engines seized and started shooting flames.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get it under control. I trust you are not in too much distress," Captain Eric Moody told passengers.

The abrasive silicate particles found in ash clouds can be as big as 2mm and as sharp as glass. When sucked into a jet engine they melt and can cling to the fan blades, causing them to seize. With no power to keep the cabin pressurized, Capt. Moody put the plane into a dive to bring it to an altitude where the air was breathable. He dropped 6,000 feet in one minute, descending out of the ash cloud in the process.

Once clear of the ash, the crew restarted the engines and the plane made a safe landing in Jakarta. Pilots are now trained to recognize the smell of sulphur in the cabin and frictional electrification on the leading edges of clouds as signs that they are encountering volcanic ash. In the past 20 years, more than 80 aircraft have encountered volcanic clouds.

Air passengers' rights

There remains a cloud of confusion as people to figure out their rights as fliers. Who's responsible for any changes to the itinerary? How would they be compensated?

Sadly, the passenger bill of rights won't get a stranded passenger far.

"It was an act of God, so there aren't really any entitlements or rights to the passenger " says Allison Wallace, the Vancouver-based spokesperson for flight booker FlightCentre.ca.

Instead, any compensation or concessions are up to the airline, she says. They have a caveat in their policies freeing them from responsibility if something like weather or a natural disaster happens.

"They aren't technically responsible to compensate other than to rebook when able or provide a refund," she says.

Air Canada and British Airways are waiving cancellation fees and extending the normal rebooking period from seven to 14 days for greater flexibility. For the rest of Europe, however, the normal change-fee policy applies. British Airways is letting passengers rebook on another of its or its franchisee's flights, subject to availability.

As in Canada, the European Union says travellers have a right to compensation except if the airline can claim there were unavoidable "extraordinary circumstances" that affected the flight and that it took all reasonable measures to avoid the conflict. Weather, political instability, security issues and the like could fall into that category. In that case, the airline doesn't have to compensate the traveller.

Most airlines will give a hotel or food voucher to a stranded passenger, Ms. Wallace adds. But they really don't have to.

Each airline has to answer to its own country's transportation officials, though most countries have similar policies, she says. So if you're stuck in Britain waiting for an Air Canada flight, Canadian law would apply despite your being in Britain.

"The only time a government regulation would come in is if it's something the airline is in control of," she said, such as a delay made on purpose or due to negligence.

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