LONDON – LONDON (AP) — Airlines appealed to passengers to give up their seats to stranded travelers Saturday, as carriers across Europe attempted to clear a backlog of thousands of tourists grounded by the ash cloud spewed from Iceland's volcano.
British Airways and Virgin Atlantic appealed for passengers booked on long-haul flights next week to consider giving up their seat to make way for travelers still stuck following flight disruptions.
A week of airspace closures caused by ash clouds gusting from Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull (pronounced ay-yah-FYAH-lah-yer-kuhl) volcano caused the worst breakdown in civil aviation in Europe since World War II. More than 100,000 flights were canceled and airlines are on track to lose more than $2 billion.
"It's a very difficult situation, and we've had to deal with a lot of complexity, aircraft stuck in different parts of the world, crew stuck in different parts of the world," said British Airways chief executive Willie Walsh.
Flight authorities in Europe say the majority of the continent is now free of volcanic ash, and most airline services are operating as normal. Several carriers said they are adding extra flights to help the stranded return home.
Iceland's civil protection agency said Eyjafjallajokull was still spewing ash, but that the plume was now around 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) high — not large enough to reach jet streams. Winds are now gusting from the south east — away from Europe, said Olof Baldursdottir, of the civil protection agency.
Most airports in Iceland — including Keflavik International Airport and Reykjavik International Airport — were closed.
"There are still a lot of tremors in the volcano, but the plume is now less than 3 kilometers high and the ash is falling mainly locally," said Baldursdottir.
Pall Einarsson, a geophysicist at the University of Iceland, said Eyjafjallajokull was being closely monitored, and spewing ash in much smaller quantities than at the beginning of its eruption.
At London's Gatwick airport — the city's second busiest hub — Daniel Starks, a 39-year-old farmer, said he was one of 200 tourists stuck on the Spanish island of Tenerife for an extra five days as a result of the disruptions. "There's a lot still out there that can't get back," he said.
France's Foreign Ministry said Saturday that about 10,000 French travelers remain stranded — about half the number estimated Friday, including 60 people stuck in Nepal. France has made €1 million ($1.3 million) available in aid to French travelers to help cover expenses due to ash-related delays.
A spokesman for Germany's Deutsche Lufthansa AG said only a few passengers were still stranded abroad.
"There are only a few passengers who are still waiting to get on a plane abroad to get back to Germany, but since there's always a few empty seats on our planes, we're taking care of this on an individual basis and are filling up those vacant seats," said Peter Schneckenleitner. "Our flight traffic is almost back to normal."
Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson has labeled as unnecessary the Europe-wide ban on flights prompted by concerns the volcanic ash could cause problems with airliner engines.
"A blanket ban of the whole of Europe was not the right decision," Branson said. "Planes have to put up with sandstorms in Africa, the engines are designed to put up with a lot more than existed."
He said Virgin engineers had insisted that there "were plenty of corridors through which the airlines could have flown." Branson said his airline lost 50 million pounds ($77 million).
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has defended the decision to close European airspace, insisting it was correct to prioritize passenger safety.
Associated Press writers Raphael Satter in London, Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin and Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report