Volcano disrupts Sea-Tac traffic


Apr. 16--The plume of an Icelandic volcano made its effect felt in the Puget Sound area today as hundreds of travelers saw their flights to Europe canceled.

British Airways canceled its daily flight from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to London's Heathrow Airport early today as the British banned all but emergency flights from Britain's air space.

At midday, Air France told passengers it would not be flying from Sea-Tac to Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport, Delta Airlines canceled its flight to Amsterdam and Lufthansa's flight to Frankfurt was postponed by five hours as airline officials watched the developing situation and then it too was canceled.

The cloud of volcanic ash from the Icelandic eruption, carried by winds, spread over the British Isles and swept into the continent. The cloud moved through the air at heights normally occupied by long distance flights.

The airlines involved appeared to have notified most passengers of the cancellations. Few were showing up at the airport to find their long-planned trips postponed.

At the Lufthansa counter, however, travelers milled about waiting definitive word about the fate of their flight until the airline finally told them the flight would not happen.

Meanwhile, flights from other American airports already in flight when the European air space was closed, turned around and returned to the airports where they began their journeys. A British Airways flight from San Francisco to London, reversed course four hours into its journey.

Somewhat ironically, Icelandair's flight from Sea-Tac to Iceland left Thursday ontime at 4:30 p.m. The volcano's ash cloud had not affected Iceland's Keflavik Airport. Many connecting flights from there to European destinations had been canceled because of the plume.

Aircraft are banned from flying into the ash cloud because its grit can damage engines and cause them to shut down. The abrasive grit also can sandblast aircraft windshields cutting visibility dramatically for pilots.

Volcanic flight disruptions are not unfamiliar in the Northwest.

Alaska's Mount Redoubt last spring interrupted flying between Sea-Tac and Anchorage and other Alaska cities off and on for several weeks.

Alaska Airlines, Alaska's busiest carrier, established a special volcano watch task force to keep tabs on the volcano's ash plume and to decide whether to launch aircraft to the 49th state and how to route them to avoid the cloud. In 1989, a KLM 747 airliner lost power to its four engines near Anchorage because of a volcanic cloud. The plane lost 12,000 feet in altitude before it entered clear air and could restart those engines.

Thursday afternoon, several additional flights had been canceled to and from Sea-Tac. Delta canceled its Amsterdam flights. Air France would arrive inbound Thursday but canceled the outbound for the night. It was unclear whether ash delayed the Lufthansa inbound flight. The airline will call Frankfurt to determine if attempt its Thursday night flight. Read more at blog.thenewstribune.com/ business.

John Gillie: 253-597-8663