BRUSSELS — European air traffic faced disruptions Saturday as a cloud of ash spewing from an Icelandic volcano affected flights in Spain, France and Portugal, authorities said.
Hundreds of flights were cancelled while many transatlantic services were delayed as they skirted the plume of debris from the Eyjafjoell volcano, which plunged air travel across the continent into chaos last month.
"Ash eruptions are ongoing and the area of potential ash contamination is expanding," the Brussels-based European air traffic coordination agency Eurocontrol said in a statement.
Transatlantic flights, being re-routed around the area owing to different concentrations of ash particles and predicted engine tolerance levels at different altitudes, were experiencing "substantial delays", it said.
Approximately 25,000 flights were expected to cross European skies on Saturday, well down from more than 30,000 on Friday.
"The reduction of available airspace is also impacting flights arriving in or departing from the Iberian peninsula and delays could be expected," Eurocontrol said.
Spain shut down 19 airports on Saturday because of the ash cloud including Barcelona, Spain's second biggest airport, which resumed operations at 2000 GMT.
A total of 900 flights were cancelled according to the transport ministry and Eurocontrol said closures at other airports would be in place until at least 2000 GMT Saturday.
National airline Iberia suspended all flights to northern Spain.
In Portugal 137 flights serving Lisbon, Oporto and Faro were cancelled Saturday, hitting mainly low-cost airlines, airport officials and websites said.
Portugal's NAV air traffic authority said it expected the ash cloud to separate into two in the evening, with one part moving east over the Iberian peninsula, leaving Portuguese airspace clear from around midnight.
However, the other half was expected to move west and cover the Azores islands in the Atlantic from 1700 GMT, closing airports and forcing further rerouting of transatlantic traffic.
"Any traffic from that time, primarily in the direction Americas-Europe, should take routes further south, like the Canary" islands off the west coast of Africa, NAV spokeswoman Sofia Azevedo.
In France, low-cost carrier Ryanair cancelled all its flights from Marseille airport, its main French hub, from 1400 GMT, plus two services to Lisbon, making a total of 15 flights. There were also cancellations from Bordeaux in the southwest.
However, the area of thick ash concentrations later disappeared and French authorities expect no immediate problems.
"All French airports will be open Sunday and we predict normal traffic," said a spokesman for France's DGAC air safety agency.
An Air France plane that took off from Paris Charles de Gaulle airport on Saturday afternoon tested ash levels for several hours. A preliminary visual inspection revealed no anomalies, the DGAC spokesman said.
In Iceland itself some 60 people living around the volcano have left the area voluntarily following the fresh eruptions, a civil protection agency official said Saturday.
"There is a lot of ash falling and the community is affected," Gudrun Johannesdottir told AFP, adding that authorities were monitoring the situation closely but no evacuation had been ordered.
"The Red Cross opened centres for people needing assistance. Those leaving (the area) have to report to the Red Cross," she said.
Eyjafjoell began fresh and intensive ash eruptions overnight Thursday and caused Ireland and the Faroe Islands to shut their airspace for a time.
Bjoern Oddsson, a geologist at the University of Iceland, said the smoke plume over the volcano had risen to seven kilometres (4.5 miles) Saturday and was bearing southeast.
"The volcanic activity is similar to what it was yesterday and hasn't increased, even though it might seem like that to the people living in the area affected by ash fall," he said.
The volcano began erupting on April 14 and caused travel chaos, with airspaces closed over several European nations for a week because of fears that aircraft engines would be damaged with fatal consequences.
It was the biggest aerial shutdown in Europe since World War II, with more than 100,000 flights cancelled and eight million passengers affected. The airline industry said it lost some 2.5 billion euros.
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