LONDON — An enormous ash cloud from an Icelandic volcano caused the biggest flight disruption since 9/11 as it drifted over northern Europe and stranded travelers on six continents Thursday.
Officials said it could take days for the skies to become safe again in one of aviation's most congested areas.
The cloud, floating miles above Earth and capable of knocking out jet engines, wrecked travel plans for tens of thousands of people — from tourists and business travelers to politicians and royals. They couldn't see the source of their frustration — except indirectly, when the ash created vibrant red and lavender sunsets.
Non-emergency flights in Britain were canceled, and most will stay grounded until at least midday Friday. Authorities in Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Belgium also closed their air space. France shut down 24 airports, including the main hub of Charles de Gaulle in Paris, and several flights out of the U.S. had to double back.
Kyla Evans, spokeswoman for air traffic service Eurocontrol, said half of all trans-Atlantic flights were expected to be canceled Friday.
At London's Heathrow airport, normally one of the world's busiest with more than 1,200 flights and 180,000 travelers a day, passengers stared forlornly at departure boards on which every flight was listed as canceled.
"We made it all the way to takeoff on the plane. ... They even showed us the safety video," said Sarah Davis, 29, a physiotherapist from Portsmouth in southern England who was hoping to fly to Los Angeles. "I'm upset. I only get so much vacation."