By Joe Brancatelli
Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted for the second time in a month on Wednesday, April 14. That has sent a huge cloud of ash, rock, sand and bits of glass into the skies of Northern Europe. The cloud is a danger to aviation--the detritus clogs jet engines and causes stalls--and has grounded thousands of flights headed to, from or through Europe.

I'm doing my best to track the breaking developments, but if you need to travel to, from or through Europe in the next few days, please check with your airline before heading to an airport. My latest dispatches are below, the most recent at the top. Which means, like a Pinter play or a bad blog, the material runs backward in time the further down the page you get.

Airlines have once again pressured aviation authorities and meteorological agencies to change the rules on how aircraft can fly around and through volcanic ash. The new rules allow approved aircraft to fly through "medium density" ash.They also reduce the size of the no-fly zone around the ash cloud. This is the second time in a month that authorities have loosened the rules to allow planes to fly despite the ash. As I said then, the question is simple: Is it safe? The answer is complicated because the only airline flight guaranteed to be "safe" is the one that never takes off. Safety rules are always a judgment call. If no engines quit, no planes crash and no passengers die, the loosened rules were successful. If not, well, it's going to be ugly. There is interesting commentary on the changes to the rules--and the balance of safety and commerce--here.

London's major airports--Heathrow, Stansted, Gatwick and London/City--are now closed and will be closed until at least 7 a.m. local time on Monday (2 a.m. Eastern time, Monday, May 17). It looks like most of the late-evening departures from the United States and Canada got out, but some are delayed on the ground at their departure airport as they wait out the closure in London.

Meanwhile, Dutch aviation authorities have announced that Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport will close from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. local time on Monday (that's midnight to 8 a.m. ET). That will put Monday's morning/early afternoon departures to the United States and Canada at risk. And it may mean Monday evening departures to Amsterdam could cancel because aircraft might not be available. Check with your carrier before heading to the airport.

Needless to say, the closures come as something of a surprise. As late as yesterday evening, no one was expecting the cloud to have any impact on London until late Tuesday at the earliest.

Dublin is now closed until 9 a.m. local time. Several other Irish airports, but not Shannon, are also closed. However, carriers serving Dublin say today's evening departures from the United States are still scheduled to depart on-time. In the United Kingdom, airports in Northern Ireland, Scotland and the north of England are mostly closed. London's airports are all open.

The Met Office, the United Kingdom's last word on all things meteorological, has decided to begin issuing five-day forecasts about the movement of the ash cloud. The first report, issued early Saturday morning British time, suggests that the ash cloud could affect British airports as early as Sunday. The problems could last into Tuesday.

"Within this timeframe, different parts of UK airspace--including airspace in the South East--are likely to be closed at different times," it said in a statement.

To put that into American English and to use geographic references we understand, assume airports in Scotland and Northern England (read: Manchester) could be in bad shape on Sunday and Monday. London's bad day could be Tuesday, the same day British Airways' flight attendants are due to start the first of four new five-day strikes. (See our separate coverage of the BA strike situation here.)

Here is the link to the Met Office's new Volcano coverage.

Meanwhile, the Irish Aviation Authority says that it may be forced to close three airports in West Ireland (Sligo, Donegal and Knock) beginning Sunday local time. At this moment, Dublin and Shannon, which offer transatlantic service, do not seem threatened.

Italy has whacked Ryanair with 3 million euros in fines for failing to help passengers stranded in Rome during last month's first wave of the volcanic ash crisis. According to a statement today from ENAC, the Italian civil aviation authority, it found 178 cases where Ryanair failed to assist travelers it had stranded when the airline cancelled thousands of flights in Europe between April 17 and 22.

According to European Community passenger's rights regulations, Ryanair was required to provide passengers it stranded at Rome/Ciampino Airport with food, water and accommodations. ENAC said no other airline operating in Italy had failed to follow EC regulations. Worst of all, ENAC seemed to suggest, its employees as well as employees of Rome's airports and Italy's Civil Protection agency were required to fill the gap when Ryanair failed. And if you know Italian civil servants, nothing gets them angrier than being required to actually do something.

It should also be noted that the fine doesn't come in a vacuum. ENAC and Ryanair have been feuding for several years over a variety of ENAC rules that Ryanair doesn't like. And woe to anyone or any agency that doesn't instantly bow to the will of Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary. And O'Leary has also been whining about the EC regulations that have required airlines to accommodate passengers stranded by ash-related cancellations and delays. We talked about that battle here.

An Associated Press dispatch on how much the volcanic ash cloud is costing Europe's travel industry is short on hard numbers, but strong on anecdotes. I particularly liked this one: One of Ireland's top attractions, the Guinness brewery in Dublin, provides a living barometer for when the city's air links are closed. "About 90 percent of our visitors come through Dublin Airport, so when the ash threat shuts it down, it's like turning off a tap at the Guinness Storehouse," said managing director Paul Carty.

Finally, some sanity from the "experts" who track volcanic ash. "We do not pretend to be psychics," said Einar Kjartansson, a geophysicist at the Icelandic Meteorological Office. Far too many "experts"--travel, aviation and meteorological--have claimed they know about this cloud and its effect on travel. No one knows anything, folks. No one knows where the cloud is headed, whether it will be a bad summer for travel or whether your particular flight will be affected.

The good news? It's been a quiet week. Almost all of the flights to and from Europe operated after last weekend's cancellation of about 500 flights and several thousand delays. The worst case I heard: A JoeSentMe member was delayed six hours at New York/Kennedy waiting for his flight to Madrid.

My Portfolio.com column has just posted and it suggests that this might not be the summer to attempt a European holiday. Besides the volcanic ash cloud, there is another series of British Airways strikes about to start. Several other European carriers face labor disruptions, too. I don't know how many will skip Spain, pass on Paris or check their impulse to head to the Czech Republic, but there are other places to go. Read my suggestions here.

It looks as if late-night departures to Europe and tomorrow's schedule between Europe and North America face some daunting challenges. The cloud now seems to be "perfectly" positioned to force aircraft to make long north or south diversions to cross the Atlantic. That's going to add to delays, actual flight times will be extended and some aircraft will be out of position and lead to cancellations. Air France, United and American airlines have all cancelled some departures to Europe this evening. And several airlines have announced Europe reaccommodation programs, but dates and destinations vary by carrier. So check your airline carefully--and be prepared for last-minute surprises.

Sadly, there is no perfect one-stop place to keep up with the news on your own. But you could try this special page posted by Eurocontrol, which handles Europe's air traffic. You may also check this page at the Eurocontrol site. However, a little deeper knowledge of the lingo of aviation is required to understand it.

The volcanic ash cloud that paralyzed European travel last month is back again. After causing the cancellation of some flights in Ireland and Scotland earlier this week, the cloud has moved into Spain and France. There have already been some sporadic cancellations to/from airports in both countries. If you're scheduled to travel to/from France or Spain tonight or tomorrow, double-check with your carrier about current conditions.

05/06/10, 7PM ET -- IT'S BA-A-A-A-A-CK!
The volcanic ash cloud that created havoc with European flights last month has reappeared. It briefly closed some airports in Scotland and Ireland this week. Some airports in Ireland, but not Dublin, will be closed on Friday, too.

04/29/10, 7PM ET -- NOBODY ASKED ME, BUT...
Am I the only one whose irony meter went berserk this week when Iceland finally had to close its airports because of the plume of volcanic ash? Keflavik International Airport is north and west of the volcano, so it was open while most of north Europe's airports were closed as the ash wafted east.

One casualty of the ash crisis was British Airways' official announcement of its new first-class cabin. But I toured one of the planes equipped with the new cabin while it was stuck at Kennedy Airport in New York. I thought the little sconce that replaces the gooseneck reading lamp was cute. The at-seat wardrobe closet was also a nice touch. And the lie-flat beds work on dials that allow you to set them into exactly the position you wish. There are some details on the new cabin here. Anybody out there still allowed to fly first?

The first thing I learned about international business travel when I started writing for Frequent Flyer in 1983 was that the hierarchy was London and Frankfurt. Paris barely rated for frequent flyers. Not too much has changed in the intervening years if your E-mails to me during the volcanic-ash thing are any indication. Most stranded flyers I heard from were in London, followed very closely by Frankfurt, Munich and other places in Germany.

That said, the happiest stranded flyers I heard from were in North Italy, where Milan/Malpensa, Pisa and Venice were all closed for flights back to the United States. Every one of the E-mails had some variation of this line: Maybe I'll try to get a flight out of Rome, or maybe I'll just eat and drink some more here and wait it out.

If you were stuck in Europe due to the volcanic ash and the subsequent airport closures, you are entitled to compensation under European Community rules. The regulations (read them here) cover reasonable expenses you incurred while waiting out your cancelled flights. The rules were promulgated several years ago to penalize airlines if they cancelled or unduly delayed flights. And while almost all transatlantic airlines and most intra-Europe carriers are abiding by the rules, many are complaining that the regulations are unfair. And they have something of a point: They didn't willingly cancel or delay any flights. They were ordered by government agencies not to fly because airports were closed. Or as the always-quotable chief executive of Ryanair, Michael O'Leary, said this week, the law is "absurd and discriminatory." Needless to say, this fight will continue. In the meantime, if you're due compensation, call your airline and start the process. And make sure you tell them you know your rights under EC regulation 261.

If you want to believe IATA, the global airline trade group, 29 percent of aviation worldwide was shut down by the volcanic ash cloud that hovered over Europe. IATA also claims airlines have already lost $1.7 billion. Eurocontrol, which handles most of Europe's air traffic, says half of the 190,000 flights scheduled to operate in Europe last week were cancelled. An association of German airports says that 3 million passengers suffered flight disruptions or cancellations.

Now that the planes are moving again in Europe's skies, the question is simple: Is it safe? The answer is complicated because the only airline flight guaranteed to be "safe" is the one that never takes off. But Tuesday's sudden about-face that permitted carriers to resume service was clearly political. Under pressure from airlines and some frustrated passengers, Europe's various regulatory agencies changed the rules. They raised the amount of ash and debris jet engines could fly through and still be deemed "safe." It's a judgment call, of course. And if no engines quit, no planes crash and no passengers die, the loosened rules were successful. If not, well, it's going to be ugly.

04/20/10, 8:30AM ET -- TUESDAY, TUESDAY ...
As I warned you Sunday evening, anyone suggesting half of Europe's flights would operate yesterday were, er, blowing smoke. Today will NOT be much better. Most airlines have resumed some services, but very few are accepting new reservations. Carriers are concentrating on already-booked customers and helping those flyers who have been stranded. If you're in Europe trying to get home, start looking at options and DO get proactive now trying to arrange service home. But prepare for disappointment.

If you're looking to go to Europe, I continue to urge you to delay your plans if at all possible. There will be very few flights departing to North Europe today. That's because there are very few planes in the United States waiting to fly. Moreover, unless you have confirmed reservations on the carrier, you probably won't get a booking now via South Europe.

As for the next few days, well, what do I know? I'm not a meteorologist or a geologist. But the best case scenario is chaos. Even if the ash cloud dissipated today, it would take upwards of a week to get everything back to normal. So, again, if you can, stay in place. Because the ash cloud isn't dissipating and it isn't going away any time soon.

If not, please proceed with extreme caution and remember: The more flights you've got in and around European airspace, the higher the chance you'll face a disruption.

04/18/10, 11PM ET -- YOU MAY HAVE HEARD ...
So you have heard by now that some "experts" think that 50 percent of the flights in Europe will operate on Monday, April 19. My response? So what. It doesn't mean that there will be any notable passenger movement tomorrow.

For starters, 20-25 percent of the flights in Europe have operated all through this current crisis. That largely represents the flights flowing to, from and through Southern Europe. You can get to 50 percent by adding a few flights at the fringes of the current area affected by the cloud of volcanic ash. For example, Austrian airspace reopens tomorrow. So does the airspace in Norway.

But that doesn't mean much for us since Austrian has already cancelled its two flights to the United States tomorrow. And despite running five emergency flights from the United States on Sunday, SAS has cancelled all of its transatlantic flights tomorrow. Moreover, the busiest airports in Europe, and the ones most likely to have flights to and from the United States, will still be closed tomorrow. That includes London (until at least 7 p.m. local time), Paris (3 p.m.) and Amsterdam (2 p.m.). Lufthansa, which dominates German traffic, has cancelled all flights worldwide until at least 2 p.m. local time. Finnair can't fly because Finland's air space is closed until at least 6 p.m. Aer Lingus has cancelled all its flights to/from Dublin tomorrow, too.

So, for all intents and purposes, tomorrow will remain a wash.

You may have also heard that there is a rift between some European carriers and the bureaucrats who control Europe's air space. These dissenting European airlines (and some national transport ministers) claim that there's been an overreaction to the volcanic ash. They claim flying through the ash cloud is an acceptable risk.

I'm no scientist or engineer. I can't judge the claims. But that doesn't matter, either. Airline safety is always a balance between science and commerce. Every flight that operates entails some risk. How you balance the risk and the need for commerce is almost always a guess, a calculation, a battle between the pocketbook and the heart. It is a social decision, not a scientific one.

One day, whether it is tomorrow or Tuesday or the 12th of Never, someone will decide the cost of keeping aircraft grounded outweighs the risk of accidents and fatalities. And planes will fly again.

If no planes are harmed by the ash and no passengers die, the risk will have been worth it. But if a planeful of passengers falls from the sky tomorrow or Tuesday or the 12th of Never, the cost-benefit equation will look much different.

That is the risk airlines take whenever they fly aircraft. And that is the risk each and every one of us takes whenever we choose to step on those aircraft.

There's no "right" answer. Only guesses that could pay off--or go horribly wrong.

04/18/10, 2PM ET -- MONDAY, MONDAY...
This is fairly simple. Nothing will be moving to/from Northern Europe tomorrow. There continues to be some long-haul activity to, from and through Madrid, Rome and Athens, but it is limited and mostly sold out. Air France is running some emergency long-haul flights out of Toulouse, including one flight to the United States. And, oddly, Iceland's main airport, Keflavik in Reykjavík, is open because it is west of the volcanic eruption. So if want to fly to Reykjavík and onward to Trondheim, Norway, that's the only northerly route that is still operating. One final note: Jet Airways, the private Indian airline, has resumed its flights from New York and Toronto to Mumbai. Those flights usually operate via Brussels, but are now flying via Athens.

04/17/10, 4:15PM ET -- ASHES TO ASHES...
Some notes on the situation now:
    + All U.S. carriers serving Europe have now updated and expanded their flight-change policy. Most are now allowing free changes for flights scheduled to depart through Tuesday, April 20, regardless of whether the flight has been officially cancelled. Check the Web site of the carrier you're using because the policies have now been loosened since yesterday and even earlier this morning.
    + The situation in Europe continues to worsen. British Airways, for example, has now cancelled all flights into and out of London tomorrow (Sunday). Aer Lingus has done the same for all U.S., British and Europe flights. Paris/CDG and Paris/Orly are closed until 6 a.m. Monday local time. SAS has cancelled all but a few local flights tomorrow. Lufthansa has cancelled flights worldwide until at least 2 p.m. German time tomorrow. Amsterdam/Schiphol is closed until at least 11 a.m. local time tomorrow. Brussels Airport is closed until at least 8 a.m. Sunday. Poland's airspace is closed. All airports in North Italy, including Milan/Malpensa, are closed.

Some opinions:
    + I want to reiterate that if you are scheduled to fly to Europe next week, CANCEL. It's going to be a mess even if airports open. Aircraft and flight crews are out of position and just because an airport opens doesn't mean a carrier can get its operations together.
    + Most of Europe's ground transport options are at or beyond capacity.
    + While some airports in the South of Europe (Rome, Athens, Madrid, Lisbon) are open, flights into and out of those facilities are largely booked. And since no airport in South Europe is a particularly large hub, there's not a lot of extra capacity. This includes Madrid, where passengers have swamped Iberia's flights and facilities at Madrid/Barajas. Unless you are desperate to get out of Europe, I don't recommend trying to get to these places now. But if you must, make sure you have CONFIRMED reservations to fly and a CONFIRMED way to get to those cities.

04/17/10, 10:30AM ET -- NOTHING'S MOVING
You have probably figured out that virtually nothing is moving to/from/through Northern Europe today. Worse, most of the weekend has been cancelled. Worst of all, if you expect to fly to, from or through most of Europe next week, my best advice is to cancel. Each day this volcanic ash situation continues, it's harder for the airlines to resume schedules and clear their backlog of already-stranded passengers. So, if you can, try to avoid traveling to or from or through Northern Europe.

Meanwhile, here's the current reality:
   + Virtually all of Britain's airspace is closed until at least 7 a.m. local time tomorrow. That includes all London airports. Some airports in Northern Ireland and Scotland are open, but there are few flights. British Airways has already cancelled all of its short-haul schedule tomorrow.
   + Airports in Northern France, including all Paris airports, will be closed until at least 6 a.m. local time on Monday, April 19.
   + Most German airports are closed indefinitely. Lufthansa has cancelled all flights worldwide until 2 p.m. German time on Sunday, April 18.
   + Scandinavian airspace is closed at least through tomorrow (April 18) and SAS has cancelled all of its flights. A few airports in far northern Norway are open, but only for domestic flights.

If you're not yet on the road, don't expect to be. I KNOW that is a real hardship for some of you, but it's better to proactively push your travel back than risk chaos next week. If you're stuck somewhere, make the best of your situation.

Although some airports in Scotland and Northern Ireland may reopen at 7 p.m. local time this evening, all airports in England and Wales, including London's facilities, are closed until at least 7 a.m. local time on Saturday, April 17. Airports in Northern France, including Paris/CDG and Paris/Orly, are down until at least 8 a.m. Saturday local time. Finland's airports are closed until at least Sunday. Stockholm, Copenhagen and Oslo are closed until at least 1 p.m. local time on Saturday. Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam and most German airports are closed indefinitely.

The good news: Dublin airport has reopened. The bad news: Everything else is awful in Europe. The airports in Paris and most of northern France will be closed until at least 7 p.m. local time tonight. Airports in the United Kingdom are closed and will remain closed throughout the day. Expect nothing to move until tomorrow--at the earliest. All German airports, except Munich, are closed until at least 6 p.m. local time. And most flights to/from the United States to Munich have been cancelled. Bottom line: If you can avoid even trying to travel to or from Europe this weekend, stay home. Already in Europe trying to get home? Not likely to happen anytime soon. You can check ground alternatives to get to cities where international airports are still operating, but European rail and ferry services are now operating at or even beyond capacity.

The Times of London is doing a real-time update of Europe's travel crisis. It may not be great as travel advice, but you can learn stuff. Like John Cleese apparently thought nothing of hopping into a cab and spending $5,000 on a ride to get to his destination. When did he become one of those bumptious bankers he used to lampoon in Monty Python? The one-time British paper of record's coverage is here.

You know what those ads used to say: It's not nice to fool with Mother Nature. And Mother Nature is mad. According to the latest report from the agency that oversees Europe's airspace, airports affected by the volcanic cloud will be closed longer than initially expected on Friday. In the United Kingdom, all airports are now closed until at least 6 p.m. local time on Friday. Brussels and Amsterdam will be closed until at least 4 p.m. local time. Paris airports are closed until noon local time. For information on other closures, surf here and click on "list of airspace/aerodrome zero-rates" in the upper left.

Friday is shaping up to be a horrific day for travel to and from Northern Europe and that means disruptions are almost surely guaranteed to continue into the weekend. Thousands of flights and hundreds of aircraft and crews are now out of position. Here's where we stand now:
    + Airports in the United Kingdom are closed through at least 1 p.m. local time. That includes London/Heathrow and all other airports with flights to or from the United States.
    + Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport is closed until at least 8 a.m. local time.
    + Almost all airports in the north of France are closed. Paris/CDG is closed until at least 2 p.m. local time.
    + Dublin Airport is closed until at least 11 a.m. local time.
    + Most airports in Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Norway are also closed.

Why do airlines make so much ado about volcanic ash? Because it's not ash at all. The intense heat of the volcano turns the eruptions into tiny shards of glass and bits of sand. The sand and glass clogs jet engines and can cause catastrophic failures of an aircraft's power plants. Don't think it can happen? Here is a Reuters story about a British Airlines incident involving volcano ash almost 30 years ago. It's why airlines now ground aircraft in similar situations.

Although Germany has not closed its airports yet, Lufthansa is proactively canceling many of its flights tonight from the United States and Canada to Frankfurt and Dusseldorf. The airline also says many of its U.S. and Canadian flights to Frankfurt and Munich tomorrow will be cancelled. Lufthansa says the current list of cancellations is posted on its U.S. home page.

France is now closing most of its major airports, including Paris/CDG, due to the ash from the erupting volcano in Iceland. And British authorities say all airports in the United Kingdom will be closed until at least 6 a.m. local time Friday.

Volcanic ash has closed many major airports in Northern Europe, including the hubs in London, Dublin, Amsterdam and Copenhagen.

Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted Wednesday local time and spewed a plume of ash up to 30,000 feet. Ash clouds moved east overnight and have been causing an increased number of airport closures through Thursday morning and afternoon Europe time.

All of the airports in Ireland and the United Kingdom are now closed. So are most airports in the Nordic countries. Amsterdam Schiphol Airport is closed, too.

Needless to say, the ash will cause disruptions through at least midday tomorrow, perhaps longer. If you are headed to/from/through Northern Europe in the next few days, plan accordingly. And expect sudden changes in departure status since this is an unpredictable weather event, not something any airline or airport can control.

ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.

This column is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.