BRUSSELS: Flight restrictions in Europe are expected to ease starting at 1130 IST Tuesday, the European Union's Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas said in Brussels, signalling that an end is in sight for the travel misery gripping the continent.
"From tomorrow morning, we should see progressively more planes in Europe's skies," Kallas told a news conference Monday, at the end of teleconference talks between EU transport ministers.
Air travel has been severely disrupted since Thursday, when authorities started closing airspace fearing that a volcanic ash cloud coming from Iceland and spreading over Europe could pose a threat to planes flying through it.
But on the fifth day of restrictions, EU authorities were under pressure to take action, especially since test flights run Sunday and Monday by several European airlines proceeded smoothly.
"I am pleased we have made real progress today," Kallas said, stressing the "good news for Europe's stranded passengers, ... Europe's airline industry and other sectors hard hit by this crisis."
The commissioner, however, made no apology for the time it took EU authorities to ease the travel ban, despite the fact that it left millions of passengers stranded and airlines facing hundred of millions of dollars in losses.
"We acted as fast as it was normal," he said.
At a separate press conference in Madrid following the meeting, Spanish Infrastructure Minister Jose Blanco said the reopening of EU airspace would take place in a "progressive and coordinated" fashion, with security as the "absolute priority."
European airspace is to be divided into three zones, with the first remaining too risky to travel due to high density of the ash.
A second zone with lower concentration of particles will be progressively opened up by national air traffic authorities, in coordination with EU counterparts and subject to expert advice.
"I can assure there will be no compromise with safety," Kallas stressed.
The third zone will cover areas not affected by the cloud, where planes have been flying normally all along.
The precise contours of the three zones were expected to be announced Tuesday morning by Eurocontrol, the European air safety body, but Kallas said that in any case the airspace that is clear from restrictions would be enlarged.
According to Eurocontrol, 70 percent of European flights, covering around 50 percent of European airspace, were expected to be grounded Monday. Sunday, the figure was close to 80 percent.
Before talks between EU transport ministers started, Kallas said it would take "three or four days to normalise the situation" after a decision to ease the air travel bans was taken.
Blanco Monday reiterated Spain's offer for other EU countries to use Spanish airports in the meantime as a hub for intercontinental flights.
The European Commission will help coordinate the use of alternative means of transport for those passengers who are unable to fly, Blanco said.
The commission also proposed to EU member states a waiver of immigration rules for foreigners stranded by the travel chaos, allowing them to stay until normal flight services resume - even if their visas have expired or if they are forced to transit through an EU country where they would not normally be allowed to go.
"Many foreigners visiting the EU are unable to return home to their countries and ... are worried to see their visas expiring," the EU's Home Affairs Commissioner, Cecilia Malmstrom, said.
"We can reassure them that they will not be considered as staying irregularly in the EU and will not need to request a visa extension."