LONDON – Europe’s busiest airport reopened Tuesday 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’ Charles de Gaulle Airport, Amsterdam and elsewhere. A jetliner from Vancouver, British Columbia, 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 early today.
Travelers cheered as the first European flights took off.
Jenny Lynn Cohen, waiting at Charles de Gaulle to travel to San Francisco, had a boarding pass but could hardly believe she was going to fly.
“I am a little afraid – I am hopeful that the plane will take off, and that it won’t meet with any volcanic ash,” she said.
The Eurocontrol air traffic agency said it expected just under half of the 27,500 flights over Europe to go ahead Tuesday, a marked improvement over the last few days. 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 the Brussels-based agency.
Conditions changed fast. Airspace in Germany remained officially closed, but about 800 flights were allowed at low altitude.
But with more than 95,000 flights canceled in the last week alone, 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.”