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Travellers grounded as air restrictions continue

By Andrew Koubaridis, Alanah Eriksen, Alanah May Eriksen

Airspace restrictions over the UK are to remain in place until at least 1800 GMT (6am Sunday NZT), according to its national air traffic service.

The Belgian government also extended its ban until the same time, while Germany and Italy closed their airports until at least 1200 GMT and 1000 GMT (midnight and 10pm NZT) respectively.

Hundreds of thousands of passengers - including thousands of New Zealanders - face indefinite delays travelling to and from northern Europe, as Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano continues to spew ash into the air.

Air New Zealand spokesman Ed Sims said the airline would not be operating any services into Europe tonight.

He advised people bound for Europe to defer their travel and get a refund.

Any passengers who decided to travel and who found their plans disrupted would have to meet any costs they incurred - if they could find accommodation.

Passengers could defer their travel to another Air NZ flight without penalty and those who no longer wanted to travel could apply for a full refund.

The airline was paying for hotel accommodation for about 600 passengers in Frankfurt, LA and Hong Kong whose travel plans were disrupted part way through their flight.

Air New Zealand's scheduled flights to London via Los Angeles and Hong Kong, leaving tonight, will terminate at LA and Hong Kong.

Qantas cancelled all flights to Europe today with passengers being offered refunds or seats on the next available flight, although the airline said it was not known when flights would resume. Meanwhile, Cathay Pacific has cancelled some Europe-bound flights leaving Hong Kong on Sunday.

A global association of air traffic control companies said the ash cloud was likely to disrupt European airspace for "several days" as it drifts towards Russia at about 40 km/h.

The last time Eyjafjallajokull erupted was in 1821 and that event took almost two years to subside.

The International Air Transport Association said the volcano was costing the industry at least US$200 million (NZ$282 million) a day.

Air traffic agency Eurocontrol said almost two-thirds of Europe's flights were cancelled on Friday, as air space remained largely closed across large chunks of north and central Europe.

Brian Flynn, deputy head of Eurocontrol, said about 16,000 of Europe's usual 28,000 daily flights were cancelled - twice as many as were cancelled a day earlier, because of fears volcanic ash could be sucked into aircraft engines and instruments, causing them to fail.

The dust-fine ash - mostly silica particles - is floating between 6000m and 11000m, the altitude band in which large passenger jets fly.

"I've been flying for 40 years but I've never seen anything like this in Europe," said Swedish pilot Axel Alegren, after landing his flight from Kabul, Afghanistan, at Munich Airport. He had been due to land at Frankfurt but was diverted.

"What we're experiencing is very, very unique. Basically Europe is turning into a no-fly zone right now, like the US after 9/11," he said. "It's going to be chaos in the next few days but it will also be something that nobody will ever forget in aviation."

A New Zealand weather expert who heads a world body yesterday warned that the eruption could also have long-term consequences.

Dr Jim Salinger, president of the World Meteorological Organisation's Commission for Agricultural Meteorology, said the ash could cause Northern Hemisphere temperatures to drop by as much as 0.5C.

But that would depend on the amount of volcanic material in the stratosphere.

"Sulphur dioxide particles are injected into the stratosphere and form a mist of sulphuric acid which blocks some of the radiation from the sun heating the surface of the earth and lower atmosphere," he said.

"This will cause cooling of the climate for up to 18 months after the event."

Together with slightly lower amounts of solar radiation this effect could lead to a reduction in pasture and crop yields, putting pressure on global food supplies.

Dr Salinger said temperature changes would affect northern Europe, the Russian Federation, Alaska, Canada and the United States but would be unlikely to cause cooling of the Southern Hemisphere or Australasia.

The eruption was the first natural disaster "within living memory" to cause Britain to close its airspace, a spokeswoman for the National Air Traffic Service said.

The disruption was expected to last at least two days, but a volcano expert said the ash could cause intermittent problems for air traffic for six months if the eruption continued.

Two London-bound Air New Zealand flights from Auckland which left last night were suspended at their stopover locations of Los Angeles and Hong Kong, where about 600 Air NZ passengers were already stranded.

They include the Governor General, Sir Anand Satyanand, who was travelling to the Polish president's funeral.

Spokesman Mark Street said it was not known last night how full the flights were.

Two Air NZ flights from London to Auckland, one via Los Angeles and one via Hong Kong, were also cancelled yesterday, and the service from Hong Kong to London was diverted to Frankfurt, Germany, where passengers were put up in hotels.

Most travel insurance would cover accommodation costs.

Other airlines including Singapore Airlines and Emirates, also cancelled flights leaving from New Zealand.

An Auckland International Airport spokesman said the airport had been inundated with calls from people offering beds for stranded travellers and that information had been passed on to Air NZ and Emirates who were the two airlines most affected.

Two thousand Flight Centre customers in the UK were due to leave between today and Sunday.

At least 125 people were to leave New Zealand today and tomorrow bound for the UK, and more than 500 were scheduled to travel over the next week.

House of Travel spokeswoman Jo Wedlock said about 4500 of her company's clients had been affected.

Insurance Council chief executive Chris Ryan last night said the eruption was an "act of God" that would probably be covered by insurers.

He said most people who bought their policies before the eruption should expect to have their claims met.

The Volcano:
Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland erupts, sending a 10km-high ash cloud across the Atlantic.

The Danger:
Debris can cause aircraft engines to fail.

Area Affected:
The ash cloud has drifted south and east toward northern Europe - including Britain, about 2000km away.

Flights:
Up to 12,000 a day delayed or cancelled in Europe and the UK.

Passengers Affected:
Hundreds of thousands.

Scale:
Largest shutdown of airspace since September 11, 2001.

Long-term:
Could cool the climate in parts of the Northern Hemisphere for up to 18 months and affect world food supplies.

- with AP, NZPA, NZ HERALD STAFF

- NZ Herald

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