Three KLM passenger flights are taking off from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport this evening. These are the first flights from Schiphol in nearly five days after a flight ban was instated due to clouds of volcanic ash blowing over Europe from Iceland.
Dutch Transport Minister Camiel Eurlings announced the flights, which will begin the gradual opening of Dutch airspace, following a video conference with his European counterparts. More flights will be allowed both to and from Schiphol airport starting at 8:00 on Tuesday morning. Other European countries will also open up their airspace at the same time.
The decision came in response to growing criticism of the blanket ban on air travel. The European transport ministers, together with EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas, have decided to split the European air space into three zones. One zone will be open to all flights, one will be partially open, and one will be restricted.
Dutch minister out in front
Dutch Transport Minister Camiel Eurlings was a leading force in the move to get air traffic moving again. During the video conference, Mr Eurlings argued for a more precise flight ban based on accurate data on the cloud of volcanic ash that is drifting over Europe from Iceland.
Minister Eurlings said, "I hope that we will soon be able to allow passengers to fly again, and based on the experiences we have had with test flights, that should be possible."
Indeed, Monday afternoon planes belonging to Dutch airline KLM took off from Surinam and Curacao, bringing stranded passengers back to Europe. KLM, along with other European airlines, had earlier carried out successful test flights. Hence, the pressure is on to get flights back to normal as soon as possible.
Airlines are estimated to be losing 200 million euros a day due to the closure of European airspace, and much of the airline industry has been advocating a more precise ban. KLM CEO Peter Hartman, having himself flown in one of the test flights, says European airspace is safe, "With the exception of a corridor extending from Iceland to Russia".
Onno van der Zee of Sky Service Netherlands accuses the Dutch aviation authorities of gross incompetence. Steven Verhagen of the Dutch pilots' trade union says the Netherlands has been too cautious: "No one is going to fly through a really thick cloud of ash."
There is talk of a coordinated bailout for losses suffered by the airline industry.
The scale of the losses has put the European aviation control agency Eurocontrol - which coordinated the flight ban based on guidelines agreed by the transport ministers - on the defensive. EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas defended the decision to close much of the European airspace: "You cannot contest today whether this 2004 guideline is irrational. You cannot say immediately that this is a failure of Europe. This is a volcano. This is a completely unprecedented event."
Giovanni Bisignani, head of the International Air Transport Association, says the airline industry is confronting a crisis even worse than the one brought on by the 9/11 attacks on the US back in 2001.
Not over yet
Experts say it is impossible to predict how long the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland will last, but it could continue spewing ash for months, if not years. And while the weather pattern blowing the ash over Europe has already shifted somewhat, blowing the ash in a more southerly direction, the respite may be only temporary.