Volcano

Dis-ash-terous

By Ray O'Hanlon


Ashes more ashes, dust to bust.

That about sums up the situation facing airlines, the transatlantic travel industry, huge numbers of airline passengers and innumerable businesses dependent on air freight this week as an ash cloud from the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull continues to make the skies over Ireland, Britain and much of Europe a no-fly zone for the past week.

That cloud is spreading with part of it now heading westwards towards North America.

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And perhaps the worst of it is that nobody can predict when the air travel disruption, which is global in its extent, will actually end.

"It's hour by hour, day by day and that makes it very hard to communicate to people what's going to happen next, or when," Jack Foley, Aer Lingus Vice President for North America told the Echo Tuesday.

Foley said that Aer Lingus was ready to resume flights as soon as it possibly could. This was dependent on a combination of positive word from the Irish Aviation Authority and Aer lingus using its own judgment.

As things stand, according to Foley, Aer Lingus has one A330 Airbus in the U.S. the plane was flying from Chicago to Dublin last Friday when it was diverted to Boston after Irish airspace was closed.

Aer Lingus, he said, was working with authorities to help stranded passengers in Boston, New York and Chicago.

He said that once flights resume, while the airline could not "bump" any booked passenger, it would be attempting to give priority to people on both sides of the Atlantic who have been trying to "get home."

Foley said that the longer the grounding of flights continued, the number of people affected would grow.

As Aer lingus - which is losing an estimated €5 million a day due to the disruption - and other carriers fretted and attempted to make life bearable for stranded passengers, there were indications that the situation might not be resolved even by the coming weekend.

Reports indicated that the Irish governments Taskforce on Emergency Planning was of the view that disruption will continue to the coming weekend. This was based in part of weather forecasts showing wind direction to Ireland's west not changing appreciably in the next few days.

"Met experts are predicting that the prevailing weather conditions will continue in the coming days. Ongoing restrictions are therefore likely," the Irish Aviation Authority said in a statement.

HOPES DASHED

Irish authorities were hoping to open Irish airspace early Tuesday, but this plan, like others before it, was shelved. The situation is being reviewed every few hours by authorities.

The Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Micheál Martin, meanwhile, issues a statement with regard to the plight of Irish citizens stranded by the volcanic fallout.

"I am deeply conscious of the plight of the many thousands of Irish citizens who have found themselves unable to return home because of flight restrictions. At this stage, it would appear that the situation is unlikely to change in the immediate future," said Martin.

"While I understand that the bulk of Irish citizens are coping with the situation, there are cases of individual hardship. I am also well aware of the huge efforts that the Irish embassies abroad are already undertaking to assist those stranded.

"For those abroad," he said, "it is important that you keep in contact with your tour operator and with the airline which holds your booking. The department will also regularly update travel advice on its own website www.dfa.ie. In addition, I would also advice citizens to register their presence on the travel registration site on the same website."

Martin said that people with "genuine emergencies," such as running short of prescribed medical supplies, should contact the relevant Irish embassy, consulate or honorary consul.

"If you are running out of funds, you should ask a relative or friend to transfer money through the normal commercial companies. The local Irish mission can advise in this area.

If your foreign visa is expiring shortly and you cannot leave, please contact the local Irish mission for advice or your travel agent," Martin said.

Transatlantic flights from Ireland to the U.S. fly from Dublin, Belfast and Shannon. The latter airport opened for a few hours Monday and Tuesday but no flights headed west. Some British Airways flights to London were diverted to Shannon Tuesday evening. The airport stayed open to take them.

Belfast International Airport spokesman Uel Hoey said: "We are at the end of a long line and the authorities and experts need to decide when it is safe to fly."

The atmosphere was "surreal", Hoey said.

"The ironic thing is that since Thursday the airport has remained open to facilitate flights but obviously those flights depend on having safe and conducive conditions for the aircraft to operate so we are very much at the end of the chain."

One passenger stranded in France was the Irish Echo's Alana Fearon who, in a normal week, would be reporting events unfolding in the Republic for Echo readers.

Fearon, however, has been dealing with a case of double jeopardy. She can't get a flight home like so many others across Europe, and has been unable to take a train because French rail workers are on strike.

Anthony Neeson in Belfast contributed to this report.