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Volcanic ash cloud halts flights

LONDON - An enormous ash cloud from a remote Icelandic volcano caused the biggest flight disruption since 9/11 Thursday as it drifted over northern Europe and stranded travelers on six continents. Officials said it could take days for the skies to become safe again in one of aviation's most congested areas.

The cloud, floating miles above Earth and capable of knocking out jet engines, wrecked travel plans for tens of thousands of people, from tourists and business travelers to politicians and royals. They couldn’t see the source of their frustration – except indirectly, when the ash created vibrant sunsets.

Non-emergency flights in Britain were canceled, and most will stay grounded until at least midday today. Authorities in Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Belgium also closed their air space. France shut down 24 airports, including the main hub of Charles de Gaulle in Paris, and several flights out of the U.S. had to double back.

At London’s Heathrow airport, normally one of the world’s busiest with more than 1,200 flights and 180,000 travelers a day, passengers stared forlornly at departure boards on which every flight was listed as canceled.

A volcano beneath Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull glacier began erupting Wednesday for the second time in less than a month, triggering floods and shooting smoke and steam miles into the air.

Video showed spectacular images of hot gases melting the thick ice, sending cascades of water thundering down the steep slopes of the volcano. Rivers swelled 10 feet in hours.

The ash cloud became a menace to air travel as it drifted south and east toward northern Europe – including Britain, about 1,200 miles away.

The ash plume drifted at between 20,000 feet and 36,000 feet, where it could get sucked into airplane engines and cause them to shut down. The smoke and ash also could affect aircraft visibility.

Britain’s air traffic service said late Thursday it was extending a ban on most air traffic until noon today GMT, but flights to Scotland and Northern Ireland may be allowed to resume before then.

The agency said Britain had not halted all flights in its space in living memory, although many were grounded after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.

FLIGHTS FROM SEA-TAC CANCELED

The plume of an Icelandic volcano made its impact felt in the Puget Sound area today as hundreds of travelers saw their flights to Europe canceled.

British Airways canceled its daily flight from Sea-Tac to London’s Heathrow Airport early today as the British banned all but emergency flights from Britain’s air space.

Among flights canceled by midday Thursday, Air France told passengers it would not be flying from Sea-Tac to Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport, Delta Airlines canceled its flight to Amsterdam and Lufthansa’s flight to Frankfurt was postponed by five hours as airline officials watched the developing situation and then it too was canceled.

John Gillie, staff writer

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