Fears volcano chaos will push into mid-week

The cascade of cancellations continued Sunday as an Icelandic volcano poured out dust clouds four miles high, snarling international travel and stranding tens of thousands of passengers at airports across the world.

It's the worst disruption of air traffic since the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001. Following those attacks, the United States closed its air space for three days, forcing Europe to postpone all transatlantic flights.

The volcanic ash Sunday forced numerous world leaders to cancel plans to travel to Poland for the funeral of President Lech Kaczynski.

Analysts feared the air traffic paralysis may extend to mid-week. Forecasts showed the plumes could become more concentrated on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The eruption started March 20 beneath the Eyjafjallajokull glacier in southern Iceland, blowing a hole in the ice. It worsened last week, forcing local evacuations and eventually affecting European airspace.

"We're into the third day of this; there is no sign of this abating," analyst Jamie Bowden said on Saturday. "It may go on into the middle of next week, and it's going to get more difficult before it gets better."

Still, a test flight carried out Saturday evening by the KLM Royal Dutch Airlines seemed to offer some hope.

The flight, conducted in Netherlands airspace, found that the air quality in the atmosphere met the requirements for safe flight, said Peter Hartman, president and CEO.

The airline used a Boeing 737-800 that flew to its maximum operating altitude of 41,000 feet (approximately 13,000 meters).

KLM expects to receive the final results of the technical inspection Sunday morning. If the results hold, the airline will ask for permission to resume its operations.

For now, however, airports in at least 15 countries were closed -- flights canceled to avoid ash that can cause jet engines to fail.

Volcanic ash contains particles, whose melting point is below that of an engine's internal temperature.

During flight, these particles will immediately melt if they go through an engine. Going through the turbine, the melted materials rapidly cool down, stick on the turbine vanes, and disturb the flow of high-pressure combustion gases.

In the worst case, it may stall the engine.

"When it gets into the jet engines and the jet engine inlets, literally it remelts this material -- this ash material," said Mary Schiavo, the former inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation. "And it forms a glass-like substance on the jet engine vanes and the parts and it can clog them and it will stop them."

Britain and Germany extended their flight cancellations until late Sunday. Most of northern and central Europe also placed restrictions on civil flights.

Passengers at England's Heathrow Airport idled the time Saturday sleeping, with caps and scarves to shield their eyes from the bright lights of Terminal 3.

Airlines passed out leaflets, advising passengers to go home and call the airline. Passengers were told they could not change their reservation at the airport.

The problem, however, was that it took up to an hour to get through to an airline representative on the phone. And the airlines could not tell passengers when they would be able to fly again.

Across the world, most groused as they waited.

"We haven't got any more money because we have been traveling for three months," said Linnea Vilsboell, a Dane stuck in Hong Kong. "So our bank accounts are, like, zero."

However, others resigned to their predicaments by a distant volcano made the most of it.

Russ Byer was supposed to fly to Los Angeles, California, on Saturday after a two-week vacation in Berlin, Germany -- until he found out about the cancellations.

"This is surreal!" he said, recalling his first thought. "Stranded by a volcano? Particularly one with an unpronounceable name."

Byer and his brother-in-law made bagels to pass time in the latter's apartment.

"We feel fortunate that we have a place to stay, flour, yeast and eggs," he told iReport -- the CNN Web site that allows people to submit pictures and videos.

Bill Wohl also looked at the "up side" of being stranded.

He and his brother only see each other a few times a year. He lives in Pennsylvania and his brother, Mike, in Tennessee.

Both found themselves trapped in Heidelberg, Germany, where both were on business.

"It's great to see Mike, and we would not have had the chance to spend the weekend together without being stuck here," Wohl told iReport.

In Riga, Latvia, Aurelie Florence spent all day Friday trying to figure out a way to get back home to Nice, France.

Then she hit upon a plan:

Fifteen hours on a ferry boat from Riga to Stockholm, Sweden. Eight hours on a train to Copenhagen, Denmark. Ten hours on another train to Frankfurt, Germany. Finally a 10-hour drive to Nice.

"Everybody here is trying to find a solution to go back home," she said. "I'm in the hotel with Japanese people. They can't go back home. I'm very lucky to live in Europe because I can take the train and I can take the ferry boat."

Her 43-hour trek begins Sunday night.

At the Gare du Nord train station in Paris, France, the lines separated into the haves and the have-nots: those who were able to snag tickets on the Eurostar -- the train that shuttles passengers through English Channel to and from the United Kingdom -- and those who couldn't.

Every five minutes, the station's PA system announced there were no more seats available on Britain-bound trains until Tuesday.

Still, some lucked out.

Simon Waller drove across Europe -- from the Czech Republic to Munich, Germany, and on to Paris -- and was fortunate enough to run into a woman from Kent, England, who had a ticket she couldn't use.

Others were still looking.

Nick Major had returned from a skiing trip in the Swiss Alps and was trying to get home to England in time to get his children back in school on Monday.

"I've got to get somewhere and I thought it would be better trying to get a ticket and get somewhere than trying to swim across the channel," he said.

And if that didn't work, did he have a plan B? "Maybe live in France," he joked.



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