Page last updated at 14:57 GMT, Wednesday, 21 April 2010 15:57 UK

Ash cloud: Lord Adonis denies pressure to lift ban

Transport Secretary Lord Adonis: "We have done our best"

Transport Secretary Lord Adonis has denied that the decision to lift UK flight restrictions was the result of pressure from the airline industry.

The ban on flights due to the volcanic ash cloud from Iceland over the UK was removed at 2200 BST on Tuesday.

Lord Adonis said the "turning point" was safety regulators' advice on how much ash in the atmosphere was safe.

The Conservatives and the Lib Dems have called for an inquiry into the handling of the crisis.

Tory leader David Cameron said: "I think a rapid inquiry to get to the bottom of decisions that have been taken, the information that was received and given, and whether those decisions were right, would be a very good thing."

Shadow transport secretary Theresa Villiers said Labour's "misjudgement and mismanagement" had "badly let down" the travelling public.

She said: "Six days into the crisis, we're suddenly told that there are actually levels of ash which are compatible with safe flying.

"The question angry passengers and airlines are already asking is why the government hadn't worked this out before the crisis occurred."

The Lib Dem transport spokesman Norman Baker said there were "questions to be asked" by the next Transport Select Committee after the election.

But he added: "I do think it's important to remember that the government has had to listen to professional advice on this."

Key turning point

Flights were grounded across the UK and much of Europe from last Thursday following the eruption of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull.

Airlines and airports had been keen for the restrictions to be lifted, with several carriers - including British Airways - conducting test flights that they said demonstrated it was safe to fly.

It's fair to say that we were too cautious - we being the international safety regulation community
Lord Adonis

On Monday, British Airways asked the European Union and the UK government for financial compensation for the disruption, saying the shutdown was costing it £15m-£20m a day.

Lord Adonis said: "We are acting on the advice of safety regulators, as we have done throughout.

"The key turning point was safety advice that was given to a meeting of European transport ministers on Monday, and it is following that that safety regulators have been making changes across Europe."

He said the advice of aircraft and engine manufacturers had been "crucial".

Lord Adonis added: "[The decisions] have not been based on pressure from airlines, and that is what the public would expect."

Later, the transport minister conceded safety regulators had been overly cautious - but said that only became apparent after tests were carried out.

He told BBC Radio 2's Jeremy Vine show: "There had been work done before but because ash wasn't an issue that had to be dealt with, it wasn't necessary to move on to establishing what was a regime where you could safely fly through areas with low contamination.

"It's fair to say that we were too cautious - we being the international safety regulation community...

"Now why did it take six days for the regulators to reach their conclusions? The answer is they needed a good deal of experience and testing to see what was in fact the impact of the ash."

Unique situation

Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the situation would continue to be monitored.

"As we have said throughout, safety is our primary concern," he said.

Dame Deirdre Hutton, of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), said there had been detailed consultation with experts to reassess the tolerance of planes to the ash cloud.

The CAA said it was a "situation without precedent" and that decisions had been made based on "thorough gathering of data and analysis".

Manufacturers have now agreed increased tolerance levels in low ash density areas
Civil Aviation Authority

"The major barrier to resuming flights has been understanding tolerance levels of aircraft to ash," the CAA said.

"Manufacturers have now agreed increased tolerance levels in low ash density areas."

After the lifting of the restrictions, the first British Airways flight to touch down from Heathrow was a service already in the air from Vancouver, which landed shortly before 2200 BST.

The airline's chief executive Willie Walsh said he was pleased with the decision, but said it would take weeks to get back to normal levels of operation.

Mr Walsh said: "There will be plenty of time for a post-mortem of what has happened over the last few days."

He maintained that parts of UK airspace could have been opened several days ago.

"My personal belief is that we could have safely continued operating for a period of time. I think there were occasions when the decision to close airspace could have been justified."



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