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Published: Wednesday, 4/21/2010

Air traffic resumes across Europe


LONDON - Europe's busiest airport reopened yesterday as air traffic across the continent lurched back to life.

But the gridlock created by Iceland's volcanic ash plume was far from over: Officials said it would be weeks before all stranded travelers could be brought home.

Passengers wept with relief as flights took off from Paris, Amsterdam, and elsewhere.

A jetliner from Vancouver was the first to land at London's Heathrow Airport, the continent's busiest, since the volcano erupted last week.

British Airways said it expected about two dozen flights from the United States, Africa, and Asia to land by this morning.

Travelers cheered as the first European flights took off.

The Eurocontrol air traffic agency said it expected just under half of the 27,500 flights over Europe to go ahead yesterday. The agency predicted close to normal takeoffs by Friday.

It was the first day since the April 14 eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano - dormant for nearly 200 years - that travelers were given a reason for hope.

"The situation today is much improved," said Brian Flynn, deputy head of operations at Eurocontrol, based in Brussels.

But with more than 95,000 flights canceled in the last week, airlines faced the enormous task of working through the backlog to get passengers where they want to go - a challenge that could take days or even weeks.

Passengers with current tickets were being given priority; those who had been stranded for days were told to either buy a new ticket or take their chances using the old one - a wait that could be days or weeks for the next available seat.

"Once your flight's canceled, you go to the back of the queue," said Laurie Price, director of aviation strategy at consultant Mott Macdonald, who was stranded in Halifax, Canada. "It seems intrinsically unfair."

Airports in Amsterdam, Switzerland, central Europe, and Scandinavia reopened, and some flights took off from Asia headed for southern Europe, where air travel was not affected.

Even the U.S. Air Force was grounded. Capt. Alysia Harvey, the spokesman for the U.S. Air Force's 48th Fighter Wing at Lakenheath, said that all sorties had been canceled there since last Thursday.

Lakenheath is the largest U.S. air base in England and the only one in Europe that has an F-15 fighter wing.

"Flying was canceled because it is difficult to predict exactly where the cloud is going to be or the effect that it will have on aircraft engines," Captain Harvey said.

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