El Al is using European overland routes in a frantic rush to try to bring home for Independence Day thousands of Israelis stranded by the volcanic ash that has crippled air travel on the continent.
The Israeli national airline and its Sun D’Or subsidiary, along with Arkia Airlines, sent more than two dozen planes Sunday morning to airports in Italy, Greece and Spain which remain open. El Al is arranging overland travel to the terminals from airports that have been shut down, including those in Britain, France, Holland, Germany, northern Italy, Switzerland and Poland. They are not expected to reopen before Monday morning, at the earliest.
The "rescue" effort already has run into problems with the shutdown of the airport in Barcelona on Sunday.
The cloud of volcanic ash has forced U.S. President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and others to cancel trips to Poland, where they were to attend the funeral of Polish President Lech Kaczynski who was killed in a plane crash in Russia last week.
A huge ash cloud has covered Europe in recent days, following the explosion of a volcano in Iceland. The thick cloud has left most planes grounded as airports shut down overseas flights due to safety concerns.
The Israel Airports Authority estimates that 30,000 people have had their flights to or from Israel cancelled due to the situation in Europe.
Disruption from the volcanic ash is costing airlines an estimated $200 million each day. Delays are also causing financial losses to producers who cannot ship their products, and to passengers stranded far from home.
The volcanic ash is considered dangerous as it lowers visibility and contains particles that can damage engines. Geologists warned Saturday that the volcano that has filled the sky with ash is not finished erupting, and new mini-eruptions may continue for some time.
The disruptions to air travel are the worst since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States that forced the shutdown of all trans-Atlantic flights to and from the country for three days.