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It's been a busy few days for the organization in charge of coordinating all flights across Europe.
How on earth — much less in the air — could anyone keep track of the ups and downs of Europe’s airports as they continue to react to the treacherous cloud of ash coming from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano?
The simple answer: EUROCONTROL.
The word itself, usually shown in all capital letters, even looks imposing, like it should be intoned in the booming voice of James Earl Jones.
In reality, EUROCONTROL — which sounds much less intimidating when called by its full name, “The European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation” — has no time for contemplating its image, which until this week has typically been low-key.
This is the agency responsible for coordinating the in-air activities of 40 European countries: every pilot, every flight, every delay and every re-routing that crosses more than one state. National air traffic controllers file their information with EUROCONTROL, which is then responsible for communicating and coordinating with the other towers along the flights' paths.
Brian Flynn, deputy head of operations, describes their mission simply: “We have an accurate picture of where all of the aircraft in Europe are at any one time, where they are and where they’re expected to be.”
Between “where they are” and “where they’re expected to be” has never been a bigger gulf than right now, with Iceland’s volcanic activity having brought European air traffic to a near-standstill. “It’s unprecedented,” said Kenneth Thomas, one of EUROCONTROL’s managers. “I just counted and at the moment we have 16 countries affected and I expect we’ll have more by morning.”
EUROCONTROL is where everyone is turning to find minute-by-minute data on how many flights are in the air, where there are still operational air paths and where there is just no hope of getting up in the air.
On Friday night, the organization's website reveals dismal news for airlines: only 10,507 flights have flown in Europe in the last 24 hours, compared to the 28,000 of a normal day. Every affected airport in Europe is listed, along with when they’ll be reassessing their situations.
In the morning, Sweden will look at “the possibility of opening … their northern sectors” and there may be some trips allowed into northern Ireland and western parts of Scotland. London airspace — on a usual day nearly the busiest in Europe — will remain closed until at least 7 a.m. Meanwhile, the volcano’s activity remains “intense” with “continuous steam eruption,” the portal says.