MIAMI – Canary Island carrier Binter Canarias (NT) canceled all flights to La Palma today while Iberia (IB) canceled its only flight to the island.

Binter Canarias said in a statement that the ash cloud produced by the volcano had worsened significantly in the last few hours, forcing it to halt operations to and from La Palma. NT, which had solely halted night flights at first, said it didn’t have a timeline for resuming operations.

The Cumbre Vieja volcano, which erupted on Sunday, has spilled thousands of tons of lava, damaged hundreds of homes, and forced thousands of people to flee their homes. The Canaries volcanology institute said on Thursday that a cloud of hazardous gas and ash extended more than 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) into the sky.

According to the AEMET national meteorological organization, the volcanic ash has started to move northeast toward the Mediterranean and the Spanish mainland. Apart from two tiny sections near the eruption site, the airspace over the island is accessible.

In a similar situation back in March 2021, Iceland halted air travel due to another volcanic eruption. The Icelandic Meteorological Office said that a long-dormant volcano in southwest Iceland erupted about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the capital Reykjavik.

At the time, the country’s major airport, Keflavik International Airport (KEF), which serves the capital, halted both inbound and outbound flight operations.

Binter Canarias (Canarias Airlines) EC-MTQ ATR 72-600. Photo: Pablo Gonzalez/Airways

Jet Engine Tolerance to Airborne Particles

British Airways (BA) Flight 9 was flying through volcanic ash from Mount Galunggung in Java, Indonesia, in 1982, when all four engines shut down. The crew was able to restart all but one of the engines and landed safely. Following the incident, the operational manuals were updated to include instructions on how to cope with volcanic ash.

For several years, Iceland’s authorities had issued warnings to airlines, requesting that they calculate the density of ash that was safe for their aircraft engines.

However, prior to the April 2010 Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruptions, aircraft engine manufacturers had yet to identify exact particle limits above which engines were considered dangerous.

Airspace authorities took the general attitude that if the ash concentration rose over zero, the airspace was deemed dangerous and closed as a result.

The Eyjafjallajökull eruption created enough economic hardship that aircraft manufacturers were forced to set strict limits on how much ash a jet engine may absorb without causing damage. The CAA, in collaboration with engine manufacturers, issued revised criteria on April 21 that enabled aircraft to fly when volcanic ash levels were between 200 and 2,000 micrograms (2 milligrams) per cubic meter.

Governments, aircraft manufacturers, and airlines maintained that these levels had no safety issues if proper maintenance and ash inspection protocols were followed. Then, the CAA increased the safe limit to 4 milligrams per cubic meter of air space as of noon on May 18, 2010. A no-fly zone is defined as any airspace where the ash density exceeds this criterion.

The CAA then announced the introduction of a new type of restricted airspace called a Time Limited Zone to reduce the amount of disturbance caused by this and other volcanic eruptions.

The 2010 Eyjafjallajökull Eruption

Concerns that volcanic ash released by the 2010 eruptions of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull might damage aircraft engines prompted many European countries’ regulated airspace to close to instrument flight rules traffic.

The extremely fine ash particles and massive volume of steam from the glacial meltwater quickly propelled an ash cloud up into the upper atmosphere, posing a threat to airplanes flying in and out of the affected zone. The airspace closure culminated in the largest air traffic shut-down since World War II.

Millions of people were stranded not only in Europe but all around the world, as a result of the shutdown. Many more countries were impacted as flights to, from, and over Europe were canceled due to the closure of vast portions of European airspace to air traffic.

Following an initial uninterrupted shutdown over much of northern Europe from April 15 to 23, airspace was closed periodically in various sections of Europe in the weeks that followed as the ash cloud’s course was traced.

On May 4-5, the ash cloud disrupted air traffic operations in Scotland and Ireland, as well as in Spain, Portugal, northern Italy, Austria, and southern Germany. The airspace between Ireland and the United Kingdom was restricted again on May 16 and then reopened on May 17.

During the 2010 air travel disruption, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) anticipated that the airline sector would lose €148m (US$200m, GB£130m) every day. The airline industry suffered a total loss of roughly US$1.7bn (£1.1bn, €1.3bn). Airports lost £80m over the six-and-a-half days, according to the Airport Operators Association (AOA).

During the six-day airspace embargo, around 95,000 flights were canceled across Europe, with later numbers indicating that 107,000 flights were canceled over an eight-day period, accounting for 48 percent of overall aviation traffic and roughly 10 million passengers.

Featured image: Iberia EC-LEU Airbus A340-600. Photo: Pablo Gonzales/Airways. Photo: Pablo Gonzalez/Airways. Article sources: Reuters, DW, BBC, Met Office