Q&A on the volcano disaster

Q: Impact on US flights?
A: US airlines cancelled half their trans-Atlantic service immediately when the problem was first diagnosed earlier this week. David Castelveter, an Air Transport Association (ATA) spokesman, said US carriers cancelled about 165 flights out of 300 scheduled for Friday. Most of these were to the UK.
The world’s biggest carrier, Delta, cancelled 65 flights through Friday morning from the US to cities that include Amsterdam, Brussels, and even Mumbai, according to spokesman Anthony Black.

Q: Why is volcanic ash a problem?
A: Aircraft avoid ash because it can wreck the flight’s propellers, among other dangers. The fine ash can collect at the same altitude as planes. Iceland’s volcanic ash became a menace to air travel as it drifted south and east towards northern Europe. The ash plume drifted in about 20,000 to 36,000 feet high where it could get sucked into airplane engines and cause them to shut down. Smoke and ash can also affect aircraft visibility. Another danger is that radar can’t detect the ash

Q: Has this ever happened before?
A: Yes. Several times. One example: a Boeing 747 jumbo jet, KLM flight 867. lost all four engines in 1989 after encountering ash from Alaska’s Redoubt Volcano. Four other airlines were damaged during the next three months, according to the Federal Aviation Administration Web site. The crew was able to restart the engines of the KLM flight after the plane dropped from 27,900 feet to 13,300 feet and landed safely. No one was injured.

Q: How long will the current problem persist?
A: At least another two days, experts say. But perhaps even more. The ash-plumb threat will continue through Sunday, predicted Europe AccuWeather. The threat is expected to decrease next week, but there still could be problems. If the volcano continues to erupt for more than a year, as it did the last time, periodic disruptions to air traffic could continue, according to Bill McGuire, a professor at the Aon Benfield UCL Hazard Research Center in London.

Q: The long-term impact on carriers?
A: Not really known. “The real question becomes how long will the volcanic ash persist,” answered Basili Alukos, an analyst with Morningstar. One potential problem is that US airlines are due to start reporting first-quarter results next week.

Q: Any positive side to the problem?
A; Historically, volcano ash so far has not caused any commercial airliner to crash yet, but it’s come very close, according to Jonathan Fink, an Arizona State University professor.

Q: How can you put this in perspective?
A: “This is not another 9/11. There are not thousands dead. There is no threat of war as a result,” writes Ian Taylor, executive editor of Travel Weekly. He makes the point that fliers have unreasonable expectations of the ease of crossing continents at 38,000 feet. And he adds that many travelers might consider being more flexible in the future about their travel plans.

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