Airlines ask EU to cover ash losses

PARIS — As airline losses from the volcanic ash cloud spiraled over $1 billion on Monday, the industry demanded EU compensation and criticized European governments for relying too much on scientific theory — not fact — in their decisions to shut down airspace across the continent.

Shares of some European airlines fell as flight disruptions from the volcanic cloud moved into a fifth day, and the International Air Transport Association complained of "no leadership" from government leaders — one of whom admitted to EU dissension about how to respond.

"It's embarrassing, and a European mess," IATA chief executive Giovanni Bisignani said. "It took five days to organize a conference call with the ministers of transport, and we are losing $200 million per day (and) 750,000 passengers are stranded all over. Does it make sense?"

IATA officials said the $200 million estimate was at the low end of their projections, and that it could run as high as $250 million to $300 million a day.

European civil aviation authorities held a conference call Monday about what steps could be taken toward opening airspace, and transport ministers of all 27 European Union members were conferring by phone and videoconference.

Dominique Bussereau, France's transport minister, told reporters Monday that he had urged EU president Spain since Saturday to call the ministerial meeting immediately — but Madrid declined.

"Naturally, it would have been better if had taken place Sunday or Saturday," Bussereau said.

British Airways said airlines have asked the EU for financial compensation for the closure of airspace, starting last Wednesday. With London among the first hubs shut down, the British carrier said it's losing as much as $30 million a day.

BA chief executive Willie Walsh pointed out that compensation had been paid to airlines after the closure of U.S. airspace following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"This is an unprecedented situation that is having a huge impact on customers and airlines alike," Walsh said. "We continue to offer as much support as we can to our customers; however, these are extraordinary circumstances that are beyond all airlines' control."

Pierre-Henri Gourgeon, the No. 2 executive at Air France-KLM, said his company is losing $47 million a day even as test flights indicated the routes were safe to fly.

"On all these flights, there hasn't been any reported problem upon arrival," Gourgeon said. "There isn't a real risk.... The precautions that have been taken are certainly too restrictive."

Lufthansa declined to estimate its losses.

Johannes Braun, an analyst at Commerzbank in Frankfurt, said airline loss estimates were largely speculative.

"Of course this is costing the airlines and the airports a lot of money every day, there's no question about it," said Braun, but he added: "For individual airline companies the cost impact is roughly comparable to a strike."