As European airspace begins to reopen, some airlines in Germany have resumed flights under special conditions. Airlines have accused aviation experts of exaggerating the risk, but is it really safe to fly right now?
Pilots bear the ultimate responsiblity under "visual flight" conditions
Europe's busiest air hub saw its first flights on Tuesday evening as airspace across the continent slowly began to reopen following nearly a week of widespread travel disruption.
A flight from Vancouver arrived at London's Heathrow Airport shortly before 10 p.m. local time, the first since British airspace was closed last Thursday following the eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano. British Airways expected about 24 other flights to arrive from the United States, Africa and Asia later in the evening.
Earlier Tuesday, Germany's two biggest airlines announced they would resume flying many of their regularly scheduled flights, despite an ongoing no-fly rule in German airspace, by operating under special "visual flight" conditions.
Under the visual flight rules, airlines are permitted to fly below 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) during daylight, as long as pilots use their own radar and eyesight to avoid other planes.
Germany's flag carrier Lufthansa announced it would carry more than 15,000 passengers on some 200 flights on Tuesday. Air Berlin, Germany's second largest carrier, was operating a nearly full flight schedule, according to its Web site.
Many stranded passengers were forced to sleep in airports
The flights were operating through a loophole in the aviation regulations, said Christine Kellek of Germany's flight safety organization (DFS). The closure of airspace only applies to aviation that relies on ground control and navigation instruments, according to Kellek.
"The German air navigation services cannot forbid flying by visual flying rules, because we regulate instrument flights, so it is not up to us to decide if somebody can fly under visual flying rules or not," Kellek told Deutsche Welle.
Pressure on pilots
But while these flights may be allowed, not everyone supports the idea.
Juerg Handwerg, a pilot and spokesperson for the German pilots' union Cockpit, said he thinks the decision to allow planes to operate on visual flight was fueled by financial considerations.
"They are avoiding the international rules they signed themselves by flying under visual flight rules," said Handwerg. "It's due to monetary reasons."
It puts unfair pressure on pilots, he added.
"Legally, you can say, ‘No I don't want to fly,’ but if your employer tells you to fly and you say no, you can get thrown out. So how can you decide not to fly?" Handwerg told Deutsche Welle.
Volcanic ash drifting across the Atlantic forced the cancellation of flights across Europe
An expensive problem
In the past, volcanic ash has been known to cause problems with aircraft. Following last week's eruption in Iceland, Air France, British Airways, KLM and Lufthansa reported no problems from their own test flights, but senior US military officials said the ash had caused some engine damage to a NATO F-16 fighter plane.
Scientists from the German Aerospace Center (DLR) carried out a four-hour test flight Monday to measure the cloud's density and composition. The results were submitted to transportation authorities in Berlin, who were to decide whether or not it's safe to fly in German airspace, according to Karl Hinterleitner of the DLR.
After several days of flight cancellations, airlines are itching to see a return to business as usual, as flight disruptions are costing them as much as 200 million euros ($270 million) per day. Experts say it's hard to know when the situation will return to normal, leaving policymakers walking a difficult line between trying to minimize the economic impact of further flight suspension and the potential risk of flying through volcanic ash.
Author: Sarah Harman/cmk/AP/Reuters
Editor: Susan Houlton