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Travel chaos across Europe

Flights cancelled in volcanic ash alert

A cloud of ash from a volcano in Iceland swept toward mainland Europe, with airspace over the United Kingdom closed to flights until Friday evening, officials said. It could take up to 48 hours for the ash to clear from U.K. airspace, a scientist said, and the cloud forced up to 6,000 flight cancellations across the continent, according to the intergovernmental body that manages European air travel…

A cloud of ash from a volcano in Iceland swept toward mainland Europe, with airspace over the United Kingdom closed to flights until Friday evening, officials said. It could take up to 48 hours for the ash to clear from U.K. airspace, a scientist said, and the cloud forced up to 6,000 flight cancellations across the continent, according to the intergovernmental body that manages European air travel.

According to CNN, thousands of flights and untold numbers of travelers were affected as some of Europe’s busiest airports closed, including London’s Heathrow, Amsterdam’s Schiphol, and Paris’ Charles de Gaulle.

The prime minister of Norway was among those stranded by the closure of European airspace. Jens Stoltenberg, who was in New York for President Barack Obama‘s nuclear summit, is running the Norwegian government from the United States via his new iPad, his press secretary Sindre Fossum Beyer said.

Airspace over much of the United Kingdom was closed to all flights except emergencies at least until 7 p.m. (2 p.m. ET) on Friday, said Britain’s air traffic authority, NATS. France, Germany, Ireland, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands also announced the complete or partial closure of their airspace, said authorities in each country.

Norway also closed its ocean territory and canceled helicopter flights to off-shore oil installations, according to Avinor, the Norwegian agency responsible for the country’s airport network. Germany closed its airport in Berlin and the airspace over the city, an airport spokesman told CNN.

Delta Airlines canceled 65 international flights from its U.S. hubs scheduled over Thursday night and Friday morning due to the ash cloud. The decision affected flights to Amsterdam, London, Dublin, Brussels and Mumbai. Whether the airline resumes flights to such destinations will be determined later Friday, Delta said.

It is hard to predict how long it will be before air travel can resume, said Matthew Watson, a geophysicist at England’s Bristol University. "You really need two things to happen: you need the volcano to stop emplacing ash to the altitude that commercial aircraft fly at, 30-35,000 feet, and you then need the upper level winds to blow the ash and disperse it out of the airspace," he said. How long that will take "depends very much on the volcano. If this is it and it’s stopped right now and it doesn’t do anything else … I imagine you are looking at 24 to 48 hours to clear U.K. airspace," he said.

France closed eight airports in the north of the country as of 5 p.m. local time, and was set to close another 16, including Charles de Gaulle, at 11 p.m. local time.

In all, around 3,000 flights across Europe were expected to be affected by the closures, according to Eurocontrol, the intergovernmental body that manages European air travel.

Many airports were already shut and flights were grounded across the United Kingdom on Thursday because of the ash, which came after an eruption under an Icelandic glacier early Wednesday, airport authorities said.

An emergency evacuation affecting 800 people was conducted near the volcano due to flash flooding from glacier waters, according to Rognvaldur Olafsson of Iceland’s civil protection agency. The same people who had fled the area the night before were allowed to return to the area early Thursday. The disruption caused havoc for air travel around the world.

Flights to the United Kingdom from Japan, Hong Kong, India and Australia were affected, and Etihad Airways announced that five flights between Abu Dhabi and England were canceled Thursday.

The Air Transport Association of America said member airlines canceled about 165 flights to and from Europe on Thursday due to the volcanic activity. U.S. carriers operate 337 flights to and from Europe each day, according to the association, whose members carry more than 90 percent of U.S. passengers.

The U.S. Air Force said two of its air force bases in England, RAF Mildenhall and RAF Lakenheath, will be shut down for at least two days. That meant dozens of U.S. Air Force F-15s and other fighter jets and tankers were not flying, and flights to Iraq and Afghanistan flying through that airspace were being diverted to other routes.

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