Airlines clearing passenger backlog
Air New Zealand is hoping to at least halve its passenger backlog, following the closure of the European airspace by ash clouds from an Icelandic volcano, by the end of next week.
Britain reopened its airspace today, almost a week after the volcano erupted and spewed hundreds of thousands of tonnes of ash into the northern hemisphere atmosphere, grounding thousands of international air flights because of the risk the ash posed to jet engines.
Air New Zealand resumed services this afternoon, with a flight to London from Los Angeles at 4.30pm (NZT) - the first of many that would tackle the backlog of passengers stuck overseas.
The airline said it would operate seven services to and from London in the next 24 hours and, barring no further airspace closures, normal scheduled services would recommence from tomorrow.
Those who were stranded in Hong Kong and Los Angeles en route to London last Thursday would have priority, followed by passengers with standing tickets, and then by passengers in chronological order from their original point of delay.
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In New Zealand, the first of about 3000 stranded passengers would begin flying out tonight on two flights to London, one at 9.30pm and one at 11.15pm.
Air New Zealand international general manager Ed Sims told Radio New Zealand about 3000 to 4000 passengers had been affected by the delays.
"A number of people have simply just cancelled or deferred travel to later in the year, so we believe we can probably halve the backlog over the course of next week if we can continue to put extra flights on," Mr Sims said.
"I certainly wouldn't say there is plenty of space, it's a very significant backlog."
Mr Sims said it was estimated that the airline had lost about $500,000 a day since the closure of the airspace, but that it was not thinking about looking for compensation yet.
"Our primary focus now is making sure that we return passengers back to where they should be, we had planes, we had pilots, we had cabin crew in places that didn't help us, that's our focus. We'll look at where the industry positions its conversations at a future date."
Meanwhile, Immigration Minister Jonathan Coleman today waived visa fees for those travellers stuck in New Zealand.
"We are very sympathetic to the plight of those travellers who have been stranded because of the huge disruptions to flights," Dr Coleman said.
"We don't want to cause any further unnecessary stress to tourists by charging them money to stay in New Zealand longer than they were expecting."
Anyone who had paid for a further visa or permit in the last few days could be eligible for a refund and should contact Immigration New Zealand straight away, he said.
AIR NZ'S LATEST SCHEDULE
All times are in local time.
Departs: Los Angeles 4:30 PM, Tue 20 Apr
Arrives: London 11:00 AM, Wed 21 Apr
Departs: London 4:15 PM, Wed 21 Apr
Arrives: Los Angeles 7:30 PM, Wed 21 Apr
Departs: Los Angeles 9:30 PM, Wed 21 Apr
Arrives: Auckland 5:25 AM, Fri 23 Apr
Departs: London 7:15 PM, Wed 21 Apr
Arrives: Los Angeles 10:30 PM, Wed 21 Apr
Departs: Los Angeles 00:15 AM, Thu 22 Apr
Arrives: Auckland 7:45 AM, Fri 23 Apr
Departs: Hong Kong 8:30 AM, Wed 21 Apr
Arrives: London 2:45 PM, Wed 21 Apr
Departs: London 4:45 PM, Wed 21 Apr
Arrives: Hong Kong 12:00 (midday), Thu 22 Apr
Departs: Hong Kong (NZ80) 6:10 PM, Thu 22 Apr
Arrives: Auckland 9:00 AM, Fri 23 Apr
Departs: Auckland 9:30 PM, Wed 21 Apr
Arrives: Los Angeles 2:30 PM, Wed 21 Apr
Departs: Los Angeles 4:30 PM, Wed 21 Apr
Arrives: London 11:00 AM, Thu 22 Apr
Departs: Auckland 11:15 PM, Wed 21 Apr
Arrives: Hong Kong 6:45 AM, Thu 22 Apr
Departs: Hong Kong 8:30 AM, Thu 22 Apr
Arrives: London 2:45 PM, Thu 22 Apr
* Additional Air New Zealand flights
BRITAIN OPENS AIRSPACE
Britain today reopened its airspace, nearly a week after an Iceland volcano erupted and spewed hundreds of thousands of tonnes of ash into the northern hemisphere atmosphere, grounding thousands of international air flights because of the risk the ash posed to jet engines.
British air space opened from 9am NZ time today (9pm local time), the first time in five days that aircraft were able to fly to and from all airports.
Britain, a major international air hub, had lagged behind neighbouring European countries in reassessing the threat to aircraft from the ash cloud and opening up more of its airspace, largely closed since the ash eruptions began last Thursday.
"Airports will be opening from this evening and airlines are now free to schedule their flights accordingly," Transport Secretary Andrew Adonis told reporters.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said the decision to revise the guidelines had been taken following the analysis of new evidence from test flights and consultation with manufacturers.
"The major barrier to resuming flight has been understanding tolerance levels of aircraft to ash," The CAA's Chairman Deidre Hutton said.
"Manufacturers have now agreed increased tolerance levels in low ash density areas," she said.
No fly zones, where concentrations of ash are at levels unsafe for flights to take place will continue to exist, but do not currently cover the UK, the CAA said.
Irish Airspace also opened from 9am this morning (NZ time), the Irish Aviation Authority said.
VOLCANIC ACTIVITY DECREASING
The volcano under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier, about 120km southeast of the capital Reykjavik, has been erupting for almost a week, grounding flights and stranding travellers worldwide.
The activity in the volcano has fallen in recent hours, with less force behind the eruptions.
"We have some indications that the activity is decreasing. We have less ash fall, and also there seems to be a little less activity in the crater,'' Rognvaldur Olafsson, the Icelandic department of civil protection's chief inspector told Reuters.
"You have to choose your words very carefully but at least the scientists tell us that the activity is going down. We cannot make the assumption that the worst is over but we hope it is,'' he said.
Airlines welcomed the news but said it would take several days until all affected passengers would be able to be flown to their destinations.
"On behalf of the tens of thousands of customers stranded around the globe, we are delighted the authorities have paid heed to the arguments we and the industry have put forward," British Airways' Chief Executive Willie Walsh said in a statement.
BA said the airline would try and land as many of the 28 longhaul aircraft due to land at London's Heathrow and Gatwick airports from 1800 GMT on Tuesday evening.
The first British Airways flight from Vancouver landed at London Heathrow, normally the world's biggest international airport, shortly before 2100 GMT (9am NZ time).
The airline said it planned to operate all longhaul flights departing from Heathrow and Gatwick on Wednesday but said shorthaul cancellations to and from London airports would remain until 1200 GMT on Wednesday (midnight NZ time).
CHEERS IN PARIS AS FLIGHTS TAKE OFF
Cheers and applause broke out as flights took off from Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport, Amsterdam and elsewhere. German airspace also remained officially closed but 800 planes were allowed to land or take off, all flying at low altitude.
"Everyone was screaming in the airplane from happiness," said Savvas Toumarides of Cyprus, who arrived in New York after getting stuck in Amsterdam for five days and missing his sister's wedding. He said the worst part was "waiting and waiting and not knowing."
"We were in the hotel having breakfast, and we heard an aircraft take off. Everybody got up and applauded," said Bob Basso of San Diego, who has been stranded near Charles de Gaulle since Friday.
The Eurocontrol air traffic agency in Brussels said it expected just under half of Europe's 27,500 flights to go ahead Tuesday, a marked improvement over the last few days. The agency predicted close to normal takeoffs by Friday.
"The situation today is much improved," said Brian Flynn, deputy head of operations at the Brussels-based agency.
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 - stranded passengers were being told to either pay for a new ticket, take the first available flight or to use their old ticket and wait for days, or weeks, for the first available seat.
"I'm supposed to be home, my children are supposed to be in school," said Belgian Marie-Laurence Gregoire, 41, who was traveling in Japan with her husband and three children, ages 6, 8, 10. They said the best that British Airways could do was put them on a flight to Rome.
"I'm tired. I just want to go home," she said.
- Stuff, NZPA, AP, Reuters