LONDON – 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 euro1 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
VIENNA – Russia and Austria signed a deal Saturday that will expand Moscow's position of strength in supplying Europe with natural gas by allowing it to expand a planned pipeline further into the EU.
Ahead of the signing ceremony, Russian President Vladimir Putin praised his country's planned South Stream pipeline, in comments dismissive of a competing EU-endorsed pipeline meant to reduce energy dependence on Russia.
The agreement signed by government and energy officials of the two countries allows Russia to lead South Stream into Austria. From there, the gas it carries westward under the Black Sea through Bulgaria and Turkey can be distributed to other European countries.
South Stream rivals the planned U.S. and EU-backed Nabucco pipeline. Austria is a major supporter of Nabucco, but has opted to also sign on to South Stream as it seeks maximum assurance of energy supply.
Both South Stream and Nabucco bypass Ukraine — and are thereby safe from the kind of price wars between Moscow and Kiev that have left Europe short of gas during several past winters.
While both projects remain years away from realization, South Stream appears to have the edge.
Since its inception eight years ago, Nabucco has been mired in doubt about the availability of non-Russian gas to supply it. That, in turn has dampened investor interest — a delay exploited by Moscow and Beijing to lock in gas from Central Asia, the projected source for Nabucco.
Putin, who met Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann, was dismissive of Nabucco at a news conference ahead of the signing, referring to its difficulties in attracting firm commitments from potential gas suppliers.
"I'd like to point out what the experts know — that before you build something, you need to finalize contracts for (gas) delivery," he said, in Russian comments translated into German. "Building a pipeline without (such) a contract is senseless — you just don't do things that way."
Russia supplies Austria with about 70 percent of its natural gas needs and all of Europe with about 20 percent, with some former Soviet bloc nations almost fully dependent on Moscow.
WASHINGTON – Celebrating signs of a turnaround in the U.S. auto industry, President Barack Obama said Saturday the financial system must be overhauled to prevent a repeat of the economic crisis that pushed carmakers to the brink.
Senate Democrats have set a test vote Monday on a bill that aims to protect the overall economy by imposing tighter regulations on the financial sector.
The auto industry was one of the biggest casualties of a recession fueled by risky lending and speculative trading practices of major financial institutions. But after shedding 400,000 jobs in 2008, bailed-out U.S. automakers are rebounding.
General Motors Co. said this week it will repay $8.1 billion in U.S. and Canadian government loans five years ahead of schedule. Chrysler LLC, now run by an Italian company, said it boosted its cash reserves by $1.5 billion despite a first-quarter loss of almost $200 million.
In his weekly radio and Internet address, Obama said that while the auto industry is on more solid footing, it will take more time for the economy to recover from the loss of 8 million jobs. He blamed the downturn on irresponsible risk-taking by Wall Street firms.
In a speech Thursday in New York in the shadow of Wall Street, Obama argued for new rules to protect consumers and hold financiers accountable. The changes would end taxpayer bailouts, bring complex financial dealings into the open and extend new rights and protections to consumers and shareholders.
"That's how after two very difficult years we'll not only revive the economy, but help to rebuild it stronger than ever before," he said Saturday.
The White House, in a report timed to GM's loan repayment, said the past nine months had produced the auto industry's strongest job growth in nearly a decade, with the addition of 45,000 jobs.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has set a test vote on the financial overhaul bill for Monday, but conceded that the timetable could slip if bargaining with Republicans proved fruitful. Republicans say they don't agree the bill would end government bailouts and they want to keep negotiating.
Without an agreement with the GOP, Democrats would need 60 votes to move forward in the Senate. They have 59 votes.
In the weekly GOP message, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas said Republicans aren't trying to block the bill but want to make sure it would end taxpayer bailouts.
"It's time for the name-calling to stop," Hutchison said. "Getting our economy back on track is too important to allow political games to sidetrack these efforts. Both parties agree that any financial regulation should do one essential thing: No company should be considered too big to fail. And never again should taxpayers be expected to bail out those who made risky financial bets with other people's money."
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