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Some European Airspace Reopens, But Uncertainty Remains

Passengers line up at check-in counters after a flight ban was lifted in Orly Airport near Paris on April 20.

Passengers line up at check-in counters after a flight ban was lifted in Orly Airport near Paris on April 20.

(RFE/RL) -- To the great relief of stranded travelers, air traffic is resuming in parts of Europe affected by the cloud of volcanic ash from Iceland.

Britain's Civil Aviation Authority has ordered a phased reopening of much of the country's airspace.

The announcement came as Polish aviation authorities also said they were planning to reopen Poland's airspace on the morning of April 21 because the plume of volcanic ash is dispersing.

The two main airports in Paris will progressively open today to allow around three-quarters of scheduled international flights to operate, a French government minister said.

Separately, Air France said that its long-distance flights from Paris will return to "normal service."

In Germany, Lufthansa announced that it is planning to operate 200 flights today, and hopes gradually to expand its services.

The German government said the aircraft used in the flights will be subjected to extra safety checks to see whether there's any buildup of ash, which could clog the engines.

And Southern and Southeastern European airports are operating normally.

EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas foreshadowed the improvement in the situation after a April 19 video meeting of EU transport ministers in Brussels.

"From tomorrow morning on, we should see progressively more planes start to fly, and this is good news for Europe's stranded passengers, good news for the airline industry, and other sectors of the economy hard-hit by this crisis," Kallas said at the time.

Threat Remains

But meteorologists warn that a new cloud is drifting toward Britain from Iceland, which prompted British Airways to cancel all short-haul flights today.

Slide show mapping the fallout's predicted course.

The latest word from the Icelandic authorities is that the volcano has begun to produce ground-level lava, instead of airborne dust particles, and that this may eventually solve the air-pollution problem.

There is also the question of health. Is the cloud of ash dangerous to public health in Europe? The World Health Organization (WTO) in Geneva said today that the ash particles remain high in the atmosphere and so do not pose a health risk so far.

Professor Ken Donaldson, a respiratory expert at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, says that the "levels [of ash] that are dropping in Europe are really very low, compared to what you find in and around volcanoes themselves, so the chances of anyone becoming adversely affected are very low."

But he says vulnerable groups like asthma suffers can take precautions. "If people do have lung conditions which might be worsened by these very small amounts of dust, they are advised to stay indoors, and keep their inhalers handy, if they have an inhaler for asthma, for instance."

The partial lifting of the flight ban follows much pressure on civil aviation authorities from the airlines, which say they are collectively losing $250 million a day in revenue.

The head of the International Air Transport Association, Giovanni Bisignani, accused European governments of not assessing risk levels properly when they put blanket bans over such a wide area. They had offered "no risk assessment, no consultation, no coordination, and no leadership," he said.

Certainly the plight of travelers is becoming acute. Travel agents estimate that 150,000 Britons alone are stranded abroad. The British Royal Navy is sending three warships to bring many of them home.

with agency reports