Page last updated at 12:37 GMT, Sunday, 18 April 2010 13:37 UK

Airlines conduct more test flights on ash cloud safety

An empty checkout desk at Belfast International airport
Thousands of passengers have faced severe travel disruption

European airlines are continuing to run test flights to assess possible damage to jet engines caused by the volcanic ash cloud that has grounded services.

The flights come as some observers start questioning if regulators may have over-stated the safety threat.

KLM, whose Saturday test went without incident, is running another eight, and Air France is also taking to the skies.

The tests come as most of Europe's air space was paralysed for a fourth day on Sunday.

But the test flights on Saturday by Dutch airline KLM and Germany's Lufthansa to assess the impact of the ash on jet engines offered some hope.

'Nothing unusual'

KLM flew a Boeing 737-800 at the regular altitude of 10 km (six miles) and up to 13 km without incident. Lufthansa flew 10 aircraft to Frankfurt from Munich at up to 8 km.

"We have found nothing unusual, neither during the flight, nor during the first inspection on the ground," said the Dutch airline's chief executive, Peter Hartman, who was aboard the test flight.

They are beginning to question whether the Met Office's computer model of the ash cloud is exaggerating its size
Robert Peston, BBC Business Editor, on airline executives' concerns

A KLM spokeswoman said later that the successful test did not mean that KLM thought it was now safe to fly. "This is the responsibility of the European authorities," she said.

"We have simply demonstrated that flying can be achieved, and we hope today's tests will show the same."

She said that if all Sunday's flights went without incident, the airline hoped to get permission "as soon quickly as possible" to restart some operations.

The UK transport department said that it was also considering holding test flights.

Pressure on air traffic authorities to at least relax some restrictions is expected to grow if the KLM and Air France complete tests without problems.

Questions raised

The Independent newspaper's Travel editor Simon Calder told BBC News that some airlines are unconvinced about the extent of the safety threat.

And the BBC's business editor, Robert Peston, said executives were "beginning to question whether the Met Office's computer model of the ash cloud is exaggerating its size. They claim that satellite pictures do not corroborate the Met's computerised simulation of the cloud."

Mr Peston said one executive told him that that Met Office was being "too cautious".

The volcanic ash has turned into quite a financial disaster for my business.
Louise Guinda, Safe Dreams

Britain on Sunday extended the ban on all flights in its airspace, leading Britain Airways to cancel all domestic and long haul flights on Monday.

National Air Traffic Services (Nats) said in statement: "Based on the latest information from the Met Office, Nats advises that the restrictions currently in place across UK controlled airspace will remain in place until at least 01:00 tomorrow, Monday 19 April."

Much of the rest of Europe was under similar restrictions, with little sign that air traffic authorities are yet ready to allow the restoration of services.

Lost revenues

European airlines, collectively losing about $200m (£130m) per day according to the industry's governing body IATA, are desperate to re-start operations.

"In addition to lost revenues, airlines will incur added costs for re-routing of aircraft, care for stranded passengers and stranded aircraft at various ports," its director of corporate communications, Anthony Concil, said.

The disruption will lead to shortages of product quite quickly for fresh fruit and flowers and then the pharmaceuticals and high tech areas.

Alan Braithwaite, Cranfield University

Kyla Evans, spokeswoman for the European air traffic control agency Eurocontrol said it was the responsibility of national aviation authorities to decide whether to open up their airspace. The agency's role was to coordinate traffic once it was allowed to resume.

Pressure to resume is also likely to come from other industries, whose businesses are starting to feel the impact.

Between 35%-40% of the world's goods move by air, and those companies that rely on just-in-time deliveries are especially vulnerable.

Just-in-time problems

Norman Black, a spokesman for freight company United Parcel Service, said: "If your just-in-time operation is depending on parts that come from Asia or the US or Africa or the Mideast... you just can't get it."

The volcanic ash cloud
The volcanic ash cloud reached about 55,000ft, Eurocontrol says

UPS and DHL have their European air-hubs in Germany, and Fedex's is in France, which have both closed their airspace.

"There's just not an option right at the moment while we all wait and see how long this is going to take," Mr Black said.

Companies producing perishable goods frequently use air-freight.

Kenya, the largest supplier of cut flowers to Europe, and East African commodity producers could be badly hit, said Standard Chartered economist Razia Khan.

Pharmaceutical companies are heavy users of air freight, but said they had enough stocks to avoid any problems in the short term.

A spokesman for AstraZeneca said: "We do have some product at airports awaiting the lifting of flight restrictions but at the moment there is no threat to the supply of medicines to patients."

Howard Archer, chief European economist at IHS Global Insight, said that the overall economic impact on the UK would be limited in the short term.

"Obviously though the longer that the problem does persist, the more serious will be the economic repercussions," he said.

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