* Airlines see disruptions lasting weeks
* Forecasters see ash dispersing, volcano less active
By Peter Griffiths
LONDON, April 21 (Reuters) - Europe’s skies were open for business on Wednesday, but with so many planes having been grounded by the pall of volcanic ash spreading from Iceland it could take days, or weeks, to clear the backlog.
Britain, a major global air hub as well as a busy destination in its own right that has been squarely under the ash plume, reopened its airspace on Tuesday night, giving a huge boost to travellers and air freight. [nLDE63J2KD]
Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority made clear that scientists and manufacturers had downgraded the risk of flying in areas of relatively low ash concentrations.
“The major barrier to resuming flight has been understanding tolerance levels of aircraft to ash. Manufacturers have now agreed increased tolerance levels in low ash density areas,” CAA head Deidre Hutton said.
Air France (AIRF.PA) plans to run all long-haul flights on Wednesday, Poland will reopen its airspace from 0500 GMT, and the Dutch allowed night flights from Tuesday after taking the lead in allowing passenger flights on Monday.
Germany, with the major Frankfurt hub, kept its airspace largely closed until at least 0000 GMT, although some 800 flights operated on Tuesday, all on visual take-off and landing.
For a factbox on airspace closures, click on [nLDE63F11N]
For a graphic on the ash cloud’s impact on airlines
For more stories on volcano’s impact, click on [nLDE63F189]
Britain had lagged its European neighbours in downgrading the threat to airplanes from the ash, which can potentially scour and even paralyse jet engines.
In 1982 a British Airways jet lost power in all four engines after flying through an ash cloud above the Indian Ocean.
Recriminations about what took governments so long to give the green light to an airline industry losing $250 million a day from the shutdown are likely to follow — especially since carriers had flown successful test flights for several days.
The Association of European Airlines, representing 36 major commercial and freight carriers, criticised Britain on Tuesday for not reopening its skies sooner. [nLDE63J21A]
“Other people look to the UK and say ‘Why are they still cautious when we are thinking of opening up?,’ and of course this can influence judgments,” David Henderson, AEA manager of information, told Reuters before Britain lifted its no-fly zone.
Icelandic officials said late on Tuesday there was less activity from the volcano under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier, which has been erupting for almost a week, but strong winds could still leave Europe at the mercy of the cloud. [nLDE63J0GN]
Raymond Benjamin, secretary-general of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, said that authorities were able to declare that the danger had passed.
An expert from the World Meteorological Organisation said in Geneva that a low pressure weather system moving into Iceland should help clear the ash cloud within days.
For the airline industry, which said its losses from the shutdown were worse than after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, freeing up the flights is a welcome relief. But with aircraft and crew scattered where they were grounded on Thursday, timetables will be wrecked.
“To get back to normal levels of operation from an (airline) industry point of view will take weeks,” British Airways BAY.L chief executive Willie Walsh told BBC television.
Steve Ridgway, chief executive of Virgin Atlantic [VA.UL], said: “Whilst the reopening of airspace is good news both for passengers and the industry as a whole, it is likely to take several days to get everyone who has been affected to their destinations.”
The progressive reopening, after the European Union agreed on Monday to ease the rules, offered stranded passengers relief after days of frustration.
But for some who have faced epic journeys and huge financial outlay since no-fly zones were imposed on Thursday, the decision came too late.
For Meg Newman, 31, a speech and language therapist, and Harry Speller, 30, both of London, New York was the last leg of a three-month tour through India, Nepal and Malaysia after Speller lost his accounting job.
Each budgeted 3,000 pounds ($4,600) for their travels, and Speller estimates the extended stay in New York will cost at least another 1,500 pounds.
“New York was our five-day treat,” Newman said. “We weren’t expecting it to be 16 days. Now we haven’t got the money.”
New York itself is losing about $3 million a day in reduced spending, according to city officials.
The European aviation control agency Eurocontrol said about half of scheduled air traffic in Europe had been expected to operate on Tuesday: about 14,000 flights, up from a third on Monday. [nWEB0755].
“We know there are still a lot of problems for passengers on the ground,” Helen Kearns, spokeswoman for the executive European Commission, told a briefing.
“We are faced with an unprecedented crisis. The disruption will continue over the week.”
The economic impact of the cloud, already hitting parts of the supply chain, could increase sharply if air travel is disrupted into a second week — potentially denting the fragile recovery from the global recession.
PricewaterhouseCoopers estimated a week of disruption could destroy around 0.025-0.05 percent of annual British GDP, and the same would probably be true of other European countries.
Luxury carmaker BMW (BMWG.DE) said it was stopping production at some German plants due to a lack of electronic component deliveries. Nissan Motor Co (7201.T) is halting production on three lines in Japan.
Humanitarian flights were also affected.
The U.S. military is evacuating war-wounded from Afghanistan to a base in Iraq, instead of sending them to Germany. A polio immunisation campaign in West Africa has had to be delayed because the vaccines are stuck at French and German airports. (Additional reporting by European and Asian bureaux; Writing by Alison Williams; Editing by Kevin Liffey) ($1=.6233 Pound)