EU eyes ash safety limit, wary of aid to airlines

BRUSSELS Tue May 4, 2010 12:24pm EDT

Lava and ash explode out of the caldera of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano April 22, 2010. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Lava and ash explode out of the caldera of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano April 22, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Lucas Jackson

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European transport ministers have agreed to set safety limits for flying in volcanic ash and to swiftly unify European airspace, but they are wary of granting financial aid to airlines grounded by such crises.

The European Commission won support for plans to push forward its "Single Skies" package at a meeting held as Britain and Ireland closed airports for several hours again due to further drifting ash from the Icelandic volcano.

That move to unite the EU's 27 national airspaces into just nine blocks by June 2012 would help coordinate air traffic during future crises.

"The Council agrees on the need of establishing...binding limit values at EU level which clearly define the safety envelope of engines and aircraft as regards the risk of volcanic ash," the ministers said in a statement.

While standards are being set, they agreed to stick to the advice of Eurocontrol and the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centres.

The Commission estimates the April disruptions to air traffic cost an already struggling industry 1.5-2.5 billion euros ($2-3.3 billion). Around 100,000 flights were canceled, stranding about 10 million travellers.

In addition to the Single Skies initiative, the Commission proposed helping airlines ride out their cash-flow problems by deferring charges paid to air traffic controllers.

"This was one idea that was not very warmly welcomed in the Council," European Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas told reporters. "The most-hard hit were the airlines...and the idea was to share their burden."

EU diplomats said the ministers also had "serious concerns" about proposals to help airlines by granting them state aid to help cover the costs of caring for stranded passengers.

"Very few came out and said they were considering state aid measures," said one diplomat. "Finland, Sweden, Austria, Belgium and Romania all said they were against the idea and had concerns it would damage the level playing field."

Kallas reiterated his warning to airlines that their demands for compensation would not be easily granted.

"There is no sack of money available," he said.

Ministers did, however, give some support to Kallas' plan to push forward the unification of European airspace.

"We tried to accelerate a number of mechanisms already planned in the Single European Skies package," said Jose Blanco, transport minister for Spain, which now holds the EU's rotating presidency.

Such technical steps include nominating a coordinator for the nine airspace blocks and creating a "crisis coordination cell" of experts and politicians.

(Writing by Pete Harrison; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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