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Tips for Flying During the Ash Cloud (and Other Natural Disasters)

The recent volcano eruption in Iceland has led to flight cancellations and delays, but travelers have more options this time than they did last year, when an ash cloud led the European Union nations to virtually shut down airspace.

This year, airlines have a say in whether or not they will fly, subject to approval by national air traffic bodies. It's quite confusing, especially when you consider that the EU is made up of 27 different national air traffic zones, each of which can impose flying bans.

The good news? As of Wednesday, UK airspace has resumed almost normal operations. The skies have reopened over Ireland, and Scotland air service resumed earlier this morning. German airports in Bremen, Hamburg and Berlin reopened today after the ash cloud began to dissipate.

Earlier predictions of a heavy ash cloud over the UK by Friday have been updated by the Met Office, which now says the volcano is only emitting steam, not ash.

Yesterday, individual airlines rallied against closures, including British Airways which flew a test flight through a smoke plume over Scotland and northern England. Ryanair's CEO Michael O'Leary also spoke out against earlier closure of airspace over Scotland and flew two test flights through areas that had been deemed dangerous for commercial flying.

The Impact on Travelers
Expect delays, as flight plans are altered to circumvent the moving ash cloud.

The more an airline has to reroute planes, the more fuel it needs to carry per airplane. In some cases, because the aircraft will be flying at lower altitudes, they will have to fly more more slowly. In some cases, this may mean weight restrictions, which translates into half-full planes flying with passengers bumped on the ground.

Tips for Travel During a Natural Disaster
Travel delays stem from all sorts of inclement weather conditions as well as major disasters like the volcano eruptions: Hail and tornado warnings left 10,000 people stuck in Dallas-Fort Worth Airport; more than 400 flights were canceled out of Chicago's O'Hare today due to Midwestern storms, with additional delays and a few cancellations in nearby Midway Airport as well.

  • Pay attention to online resources and social media. Airlines such as British Airways, KLM, Aer Lingus, Loganair, Ryanair and others that canceled flights Monday and Tuesday are using Twitter, Facebook and Web sites to communicate updates. Europe's air traffic control organization, EuroControl, has been posting updates online and via Twitter (@eurocontrol).
  • If your flight has been canceled, there is no point in showing up at the airport, but you also can't take online updates at face value. Have a conversation with a human being. Once you get an agent on the phone, do NOT ask if your flight is on time. That's a meaningless question and will be given a meaningless answer. Why? because airlines interpret that question to mean "Is my flight scheduled to leave on time? Technically, EVERY flight is scheduled to leave on time.
  • The question you must ask is two-fold. Let's say you're on Flight 307 to Berlin. Question one: I'm on Flight 307 to Berlin. Could you tell me the aircraft number assigned to Flight 307? Oh, it's tail number 489? Then, once you have that information, ask question number two: Where is tail number 489? It' in Belize? Well no point in going to the airport. you aren't leaving. Or at least, not leaving on that flight.
  • Now what? Travelers who need an immediate plan B need to think about heading south if they're going to Europe...Madrid, for starters.
  • Ask about heading heading west to head east: New York to London may be canceled, but Chicago to London may not. Chicago to London may be canceled, but Las Vegas to Heathrow might be operating.
  • If you're stuck, ask if the airline will waive the rebooking or cancellation fee. Airlines like Continental and United have already issued fee waivers for travelers heading to, from or through airports in Ireland and Scotland and allowing frequent-flier miles to be redeposited for no fees. Similar waivers are being provided for disrupted travel to, from or through Chicago's O'Hare as well.
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