An unprecedented 17,000 flights were grounded as drifting volcanic ash cloud forced a no-fly-zone over almost the whole of Europe, shutting down major hubs including London, Paris and Frankfurt, and stranding millions of travellers. For the third day in succession, massive drifts of volcanic ash blanketed European airspace.
The black plume forced country's to extend bans on most flights with Air Traffic Control in Britain, Germany, Denmark, Nordic countries, France and most of Eastern European countries announcing that no flights will operate till Sunday.
The thick clouds left hundreds of thousands of air -passengers stranded all over Europe and Asia, including India. As many as 17,000 flights out of Europe's usual 28,000 were cancelled as the airspace remained totally empty over northern Europe. Scientists warned that the volcanic activity had increased in Iceland and that could cause more disruption.
The grounding of major airliners was costing the industry at least $200 million a day, according to an IATA spokesman. The flying ash also affected airlines in the United States, where 280 out of the 330 transatlantic flights were cancelled. Air traffic control officials said they were not sure when flights operations would return to normal.
Poland said it was shutting all airports till further notice, which could throw into doubt the arrival of world leaders, including US President Barack Obama, who was due to fly to the southern city of Krakow on Sunday to attend the funeral of Polish President Lech Kaczynski. Ireland re-imposed flight ban over its airspace, while Austria, Belgium, France and Switzerland said there would be no flight operations till Sunday.
As chaos prevailed at all European airports, an Iceland geologist warned that activity from the erupting volcano had increased, causing a rise in ash plume.
But he said that flights over the volcano would be undertaken on Saturday and Sunday to determine how long the eruption would last. All 16 international airports in Germany have been shut down until 1400 hrs on Sunday.
Munich airport operated till Friday evening the only German airport not affected by the flight ban -- but there too all incoming and outgoing flights have been cancelled. A spokesperson for the German air traffic control said that the flight ban could be extended to Sunday.
At the Frankfurt airport, the largest airport on the European mainland, all flights including the four daily Air India flights to and from India were cancelled.
Over a thousand stranded passengers spent the night at the airport on camping beds provided by the airport authorities. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was returning home after attending the nuclear security summit in Washington, made a stop-over in Lisbon on Friday as her plane could not land in Berlin. A German government statement said she will try to return to Berlin on Saturday.