Page last updated at 19:54 GMT, Saturday, 24 April 2010 20:54 UK

Volunteers asked to give seats to stranded passengers

Passengers queue at an information desk in the departures area in Gatwick airport
BA is urging stranded passengers to be in close contact about flights home

UK airlines are seeking volunteers to give up seats so the thousands of people still stranded after the volcanic ash disruption can get home.

British Airways (BA) has asked customers who are booked on long-haul flights up to 2 May to make way for those who were stranded.

And Virgin Atlantic says many such volunteers have contacted the airline.

But many airlines' long-haul passengers still face weeks of delays, with re-booked returns stretching into May.

Earlier BA rejected suggestions it was prioritising new passengers over those stranded abroad.

British airspace reopened on Tuesday following almost a week of grounded flights. Although more planes than usual are flying, tens of thousands of Britons are still stuck overseas.

Airlines are adopting different strategies to get their customers home as soon as possible.

BA is seeking volunteers who can delay their journey and give up their seats for a stranded passenger.

STRANDED PASSENGERS
Egypt: 10,000
Florida: 9,000
India: 8,000
South Africa: 5,000
California: 4,000
Thailand: 2,500
Malaysia: 2,000
Other significant regions: Caribbean (especially Antigua, Barbados, Cuba); Dubai; Maldives
Source: Industry figures compiled by travel journalist Simon Calder

The company says those volunteers can then re-book on later flights at no extra cost, but the re-arranged flight has to be at least seven days after the original departure date.

Some passengers have complained that BA appeared to be selling empty seats on earlier flights to new passengers.

BA said its computer system forced empty seats to be made available for sale, but the tickets had been significantly overpriced so they would remain unsold and stranded customers were not being asked to pay anything extra when their flight was re-booked.

Virgin Atlantic is also taking up offers from volunteers who can fly home at a later date.

Backlog

Easyjet said it was setting up stand-by desks in airports to process waiting passengers, while Ryanair said it had cleared its backlog.

Travel journalist Simon Calder said holiday firm Thomson aimed to bring all its stranded customers back by Monday.

In some areas of the world, there is a significant lack of air capacity to enable British people to be returned quickly
Mark Tanzer
Abta

Emirates said it was putting on extra flights, and that it had repatriated 6,000 passengers so far. The airline said the vast majority would be back home in the next week or so.

It said customers affected could cancel their booking or change their onward destination without incurring charges.

American Airlines said it was "very close to finishing the repatriation".

The Association of British Travel Agents (Abta) said it aimed to have repatriated more than 100,000 British passengers by the end of the weekend.

But chief executive Mark Tanzer said: "While most flights are back to normal, and most stranded British passengers will be back by the end of this weekend, there is still quite a high level of disruption in some destinations.

"In some areas of the world, there is a significant lack of air capacity to enable British people to be returned quickly."

Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson said the blanket ban on flights had been an "overreaction", insisting that there had been "no danger at all" to flying.

He said that Virgin engineers had advised that there had been plenty of flight corridors which were "quite safe" and called for compensation for the air industry after the ban cost his airline £50m in six days.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has defended the government's stance, insisting that passengers had to be "safe and secure".

Sir Richard said the airline was still "battling" to get some people home from some routes, including Orlando and the Caribbean and that it was "nearly on top of the problem, maybe another week or so to go".

Bills mounting

Paul Lewis from the BBC's Money Box programme warned the fallout from the volcanic ash would "hit people so hard" in their wallets.

He said the British Bankers Association had said its members would be sympathetic and most banks were offering to waive charges for foreign withdrawals and cash advances on credit cards, and penalty charges for exceeding overdraft limits.


We do not feel like we are being prioritised as stranded passengers. It's a disaster.

Andrew, stranded in Cape Town

He warned stranded Britons could also be faced with huge mobile phone bills as they attempted to book flights. O2 has said it is allowing customers to call BA, Virgin, Thomson, BMI and Easyjet free.

Britons stranded in Bangkok are said to be too scared to leave Suvarnabhumi Airport for fear of being caught up in anti-government protests taking place in the capital.

Some passengers have described the situation as a "dog-eat-dog atmosphere" as fellow tourists scramble for flights home.

Briton Tim Rutledge, who is awaiting a flight home, said not only was there trouble with the protests, but it was "brewing up" and "getting a bit nasty" inside the airline offices at the airport.

Over the weekend BA hopes to send out extra planes to repatriate customers from New York, Newark, the Maldives, Antigua/St Kitts, Barbados, Johannesburg, Dubai, Sharm El Sheikh, Mumbai, Bangkok and Hong Kong.

The airline said it was aiming to operate a full service on Saturday out of Heathrow, Gatwick and London City.

BA's European subsidiary, Openskies, is also operating extra flights and BA Cityflyer is adding extra flights from Madrid and Barcelona into London City for the next four days.



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