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Airlines, travelers gird for summer delays as volcano plume persists

By Shawn Pogatchnik
Associated Press / May 14, 2010

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DUBLIN — It’s been a month now, and Iceland’s volcano shows no sign it will stop belching ash across Europe anytime soon. The rolling eruptions threaten more havoc for summer vacation plans and higher costs for struggling airlines.

Although the global disruption of last month’s massive eruption has faded, smaller ash plumes snarled air services intermittently over the last week all the way to Turkey — more than 2,500 miles from the Eyjafjallajokul volcano.

Air-control authorities and geologists agree that the continent must brace indefinitely for rapid shutdowns of air services as computerized projections try to pinpoint where the ash clouds will float next at the whim of shifting winds.

“We do not pretend to be psychics,’’ said Einar Kjartansson, a geophysicist at the Icelandic Meteorological Office, who often has been asked to guess the volcano’s next move since it began spitting lava and ash March 20.

Huge volumes of ash, which can clog jet engines, forced most of northern Europe to shut its air services April 15-20, grounding an estimated 10 million travelers worldwide.

Since then the ash plume has thinned and spread out, shifting shape by the hour, rising into North Atlantic air routes and imposing awkward detours on hundreds of trans-Atlantic flights daily.

Some insurers are offering travel coverage for flights delayed because of volcanic ash, though in many cases reimbursement would not be large enough to cover major expenses such as hotel charges. One major British insurer, Direct Line, announced on April 20 that it would not cover ash disruption in future policies because travelers “are buying cover in the knowledge that there is a problem.’’

Many individual travelers, however, appear to be taking the continuing ash threat in stride.

Silvia Bucci, a 38-year-old bank employee in Rome, said the ash wouldn’t easily deter her from flying.

“I am a very flexible person. I would be easily open to changing my destination if I knew that the cloud was heading toward my destination,’’ said Bucci, rushing through central Rome with bags full from shopping. “I would say it is a relative problem, and in any case I never book my vacations much in advance.’’

In prosperous Norway, one of the countries most in the volcano’s firing line, travel industry officials say nothing will deter most of the nation’s 4.9 million people from booking flights to the Mediterranean this summer.

Despite the volcano, British tour operator Thomas Cook said yesterday that summer bookings had risen 5 percent in the last four weeks and were ahead of planned capacity.

“We are pleased with the development of our summer bookings program, particularly given the disruption caused by the volcanic ash cloud,’’ said Chief Executive Manny Fontenla-Novoa.

For airlines, the costs associated with an ash cloud can add up quickly. Consider that two hours of jet fuel to divert to another airport can cost $5,000 to $10,000 depending on the size of aircraft involved.

This weekend, Lufthansa couldn’t land in Munich so diverted planes to other German airports and bused passengers the rest of the way.

Lufthansa spokesman Thomas Jachnow said the airline hadn’t calculated yet how many extra costs it was suffering because of the sporadic diversions and grounding of aircraft over the past week.