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Europe should reduce its volcanic ash flight ban to “several dozen kilometres” around Iceland and rethink the Met Office science behind the current no fly restrictions, said a senior European Commission official today.

As forecasters warned the cloud from the Iceland volcano could prevent flights over Britain all week, criticism has been growing over the system that means only 30 per cent of scheduled European flights will operate today.

The unprecedented disruption to airline passengers has already cost the British economy £500 million and is costing airlines worldwide £130 million a day.

Matthias Ruete, the Commission’s director general of transport, criticised national air traffic authorities for relying on a single source of scientific evidence for the four day ban, which has created a major aviation crisis.

“The science behind the model we are running at the moment is based on certain assumptions where we do not have clear scientific evidence,” he said.

“We don’t even know what density the cloud should be in order to affect jet engines. We have a model that runs on mathematical projections.”

“It is probability rather than actual things happening.”

The Met Office’s London Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC) provided the volcanic ash warning last week, triggering the European ban, via Eurocontrol, the Brussels based air traffic control centre.

Mr Ruete revealed that the Commission was forced yesterday to intervene with national authorities to “unblock the mess” and to allow airlines to fly test flights to check the VAAC data.

“In a case where, we do not have the data it is a tremendous and terrible responsibility for the authorities to say, ‘oh well go on up’. That is why test flights are so important to have some kind of empirical evidence to help us move on from the mathematical model,” he said.

He said that 40 test flights across Europe, including one by British Airways, had found no evidence of ash in jet engines, windows or lubrication systems that could pick up the dangerous volcanic particles.

“There was no trace of ash at all,” he said.

The Commission will support an option restricting the flight ban to the immediate vicinity of Iceland at an emergency videoconference of EU transport ministers this afternoon.

In the long term, Mr Ruete signalled that Europe should move to a United States style system for dealing with volcanic ash. He said that America was used to dealing with volcanoes and allowed airlines to decide whether to fly based on scientific evidence.

Under the European system, national and European authorities are compelled to act on the VAAC’s advice, even if it is limited to mathematical modelling.

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