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Originally published April 18, 2010 at 10:05 PM | Page modified April 19, 2010 at 8:51 AM

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European airlines test the ash cloud

As Europe grounded most airline flights for a fourth day Sunday because of a volcanic ash cloud spreading from Iceland, increasingly desperate airlines ran test flights to show that flying was safe and pressed aviation authorities to loosen the flight ban.

As Europe grounded most airline flights for a fourth day Sunday because of a volcanic ash cloud spreading from Iceland, increasingly desperate airlines ran test flights to show that flying was safe and pressed aviation authorities to loosen the flight ban.

Airlines complained that European governments were overreacting, relying on incomplete data from computer models rather than real-world safety tests in the air above Europe. In a blunt statement Sunday, representatives of Europe's airlines and airports called for "an immediate reassessment of the present restrictions."

Europe's transportation ministers decided to meet in Brussels on Monday to discuss how and when to return planes to the air. "It is clear that this is not sustainable," the European Union's transport commissioner, Siim Kallas, said in Brussels. "We cannot just wait until this ash cloud dissipates."

Europe remained a scene of travel chaos, with deserted airports and grounded planes, and stranded travelers stormed ports and bus and train stations. London's St. Pancras train station, where Eurostar trains leave for Paris and Brussels, was packed with people looking for a way to the European mainland.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel finally arrived back in Germany from San Francisco, after a three-day odyssey through North Dakota, Portugal and Italy via plane, armored car and bus. And one group of intrepid Samaritans tried to evacuate stranded travelers by dinghy from Calais, France, to Dover, England.

The closing of European airspace has dealt a severe blow to the beleaguered airline industry. The crisis has cost the airlines at least $1 billion in lost revenue and could wipe out weaker carriers if it continues much longer, analysts say.

Airlines already have suffered losses of $50 billion over the past decade after the Sept. 11 attacks, the SARS epidemics of 2004, the rise in fuel costs in 2008 and the recent recession.

Glasslike dust

Authorities are concerned that engines could seize or stall if an airplane moves through the ash cloud, which contains high levels of silica, a glasslike dust.

But airlines in Germany, the Netherlands and France sent jets close to or into the plume of ash and dust thrown up by the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland, in bids to demonstrate that flying conditions over Europe were safe.

All the flights landed without incident, they said. The planes flew at low altitude, between 9,800 and 26,000 feet, under so-called visual flight rules, in which pilots don't have to rely on instruments.

The chief executive of British Airways, Willie Walsh, even hopped aboard a Boeing 747 flying from London's Heathrow Airport to Cardiff, Wales, to gather data on the ash.

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There was no indication, however, that aviation authorities would ease restrictions immediately. Officials said new wind patterns could disperse some of the ash cloud and allow more regularly scheduled flights to operate Monday, but thousands of stranded passengers and affected businesses braced for the ban on air travel to extend into the new week.

British Airways canceled all service Monday into and out of London. Lufthansa also announced the cancellation of all its flights worldwide Monday. The French government said airports in northern France, including Paris, would remain closed until at least Tuesday.

Except for a handful of flights allowed where a gap appeared in the cloud of ash, no-fly zones were in force in all or part of 24 countries on the continent Sunday, the Europe-wide aviation agency Eurocontrol reported. The list included southern nations such as Spain that had escaped restrictions but now are being hit as the high-altitude grit drifts farther south and east.

Eurocontrol said only 4,000 flights out of a usual 24,000 through European airspace were expected Sunday, the fewest since widespread disruptions first began Thursday. About 63,000 flights have been canceled.

Complicating any decisions is the continued eruption of Eyjafjallajokull.

AccuWeather.com said the top of the ash plume had dropped to about 10,000 feet from 33,000 last week, putting it in the flight path of even low-flying aircraft. Shifts in the wind will increase the risk for the Netherlands and Germany on Tuesday and Wednesday, the forecaster said.

Ash and grit from volcanic eruptions can damage a plane in various ways. The abrasive ash can sandblast a jet's windshield, block fuel nozzles, contaminate the oil system and electronics and plug the tubes that sense air speed. The greatest danger is to the engines, where melted ash can congeal on the blades and block the normal flow of air.

There are no recorded instances of fatal aircraft crashes involving volcanic ash, although several have suffered damage and some lost engine power temporarily.

Because the volcano is below a glacial ice cap, scientists say magma is being cooled quickly, causing explosions and plumes of grit that can be catastrophic to plane engines.

Compiled from The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press

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