In NEW YORK TIMES by steven ERLANGER 04/17/2010
PARIS – As an increasingly large part of European airspace was shut down for the third day on Saturday and the towering fountain of ash from an Icelandic volcano showed no signs of letting up, questions about the long-term impact of the eruption were being raised in a continent trying to recover from recession.
With airports closed from Ireland to Ukraine, officials expressed hope that some air travel could resume Sunday, or possibly Monday, but the workings of Iceland’s volcano were too mysterious to make rational predictions about it. Winds pushed the particulate ash farther south and east on Saturday, as far as northern Italy.
About 17,000 flights were canceled Saturday, and travelers scrambled to find accommodation or land routes home during what is already the worst disruption in international air travel since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when all air travel in and out of the United States was halted for three days.
While the closing of the airways has already laid waste to the immediate plans and business of industry, the arts and world leaders, the possibility that it could drag on for days, if not weeks, is raising concerns about the longer term consequences for public health, military operations and the world economy.
The disaster is estimated to be costing airlines $200 million a day, but the economic damage will roll through to farms, retail establishments and nearly any other business that depends on air cargo shipments. Fresh produce will spoil, and supermarkets in Europe, used to year-round supplies, will begin to run out.
But unless flights are disrupted for weeks, threatening factories’ supply chains, economists do not think the crisis will significantly affect gross domestic product.
« If it really drags on another week that could be really serious, » said Peter Westaway, chief economist for Europe at the Nomura investment bank. The air travel shutdown could affect productivity, he said, if hundreds of thousands of people miss work or are not able to do business because they are stuck in limbo somewhere.
He would know. He was speaking by cellphone from Tokyo where he was watching British soccer on a barroom TV at 3 a.m. and waiting for news of when he might be able to get back to his office in London.
« We don’t understand how interconnected we are until you can’t do it anymore, » he said.
The shutdown has also affected American military operations. Military supplies for operations in Afghanistan have been disrupted, and a spokeswoman for the Pentagon said that all medical evacuation flights from Iraq and Afghanistan to Germany, where most injured soldiers are typically treated, were being diverted directly to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
Within the European Command, some routine resupply missions and movement of personnel missions have been diverted or delayed, she said.
The World Health Organization issued an advisory saying that as long as the ash remains in the upper atmosphere, there is not likely to be increased health risk. So far, analysis of the ash shows that about a quarter of the particles are smaller than 10 microns, making them more dangerous because they can penetrate more deeply into the lungs, the W.H.O. said.
In Britain, where a layer of fine dust is already covering large areas of the country, the authorities are advising those with respiratory problems to stay indoors or wear masks out of doors.
But experts said most people had no reason to be alarmed. Dr. Neil W. Schluger, chief scientific officer for the World Lung Foundation, said people with asthma or lung disease could stay indoors or wear a mask to avoid irritation, but that there was little real danger, especially with the ash falling so far from the source.
« The bottom line, » said Dr. Ronald G. Crystal, chief of pulmonology at New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Hospital, « is there’s no longterm health effect from volcanic ash. »
International transportation, however, was still what the front page of the French newspaper Le Parisien called « La Grande Pagaille » – the big mess.
Europe’s three largest airports – London Heathrow, Frankfurt and Paris-Charles de Gaulle – were all shut on Saturday, with officials hoping that flights could resume sometime on Sunday or, more likely, Monday. Britain, France, Germany and Ireland banned most commercial air traffic for another day. Airports in northern Italy were closed on Saturday. European airlines said that up to 70 percent of flights scheduled for Saturday were canceled as backlogs increased. .
The ash cloud was also wreaking havoc on sporting events and concerts as athletes and musicians canceled appearances. (…)

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