Air traffic in or out of Norway is unlikely to resume for at least another day, perhaps two or three, until the danger of airborne volcanic debris blows over. The closure of Norwegian air space has already stranded as many as 120,000 passengers, halted the country’s important air ambulance fleet and all the helicopters serving Norway’s offshore oil rigs.
Two government ministers and the head of civil aviation authority Avinor held a press conference Thursday afternoon to try to answer questions about the first total closure of air space in Norway’s history. None of them could say, however, when the disruption of air traffic will end.
“Life and health are priority number one,” said Transport Minister Magnhild Meltveit Kleppa. “The closure (of air space) is absolutely necessary.”
She said Iceland’s latest volcanic eruption, and the massive cloud of ash and debris that it’s created, is “a serious reminder of how dangerous nature can be.” She said the volcanic ash “can destroy” airline engines, making it far too risky to fly and grounding flights at all airports including Oslo Gardermoen (photo above).
Kleppa said Avinor experts were monitoring the situation continually “but the outlook for the next two or three days isn’t good.” If the volcano continues to erupt (photo), air traffic may be disrupted for several weeks, she said.
The cancellation of all flights left passengers stranded or scrambling to find other means of transportation. Seats on NSB’s long-distance train lines sold out quickly and NSB officials couldn’t add extra departures. By Thursday afternoon, Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) was reporting that all rental cars were booked as well.
The air traffic shutdown came on the very day that some transport unions, including many bus lines, were threatening to go out on strike. A strike was averted, at least for now.
Air ambulance alarm
Health Minister Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen was most worried about the grounding of Norway’s important air ambulance fleet. Because of Norway’s mountainous terrain and lack of motorways, the air ambulances and rescue helicopters play a critical role in medical emergencies, handling as many as 35 acute calls a day.
Strøm-Erichsen said health officials would have to rely on ground transport and hospital emergency rooms were coordinating calls and services.
Postal authorities also warned that mail delivery would be delayed for the duration of the air space closure, because so much of its is carried by air in Norway, including hundreds of thousands of tax forms being sent to processing centers in northern Norway at this time of year.
Stuck on the rigs
Offshore oil and gas workers also will have to remain on their platforms until air traffic can resume. All helicopter shuttles to and from Norway’s offshore oil fields were grounded as well.
With air space closed over northern Europe, too, airline passengers were also stranded at such major hubs as London, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Copenhagen. Innumerable events face cancellation or disruption including the gala 70th birthday celebration on Friday for Danish Queen Margrethe. Norway’s royal family was due to attend, and it also remained unclear whether King Harald would be able to travel to funeral ceremonies over the weekend for Poland’s president, killed in a plane crash last week.