Page last updated at 14:51 GMT, Wednesday, 21 April 2010 15:51 UK

Ash cloud chaos: Airlines face huge task as ban ends


A group of UK-bound passengers who had been stranded at Madrid airport celebrate getting seats on a flight home

Airlines and passengers face a slow return to normality as flights resume after a six-day shutdown because of volcanic ash from Iceland.

Tens of thousands of Britons are still stranded abroad and it could take weeks to get back to business as usual.

Further delays and cancellations are occurring because of the backlog and planes not being in the right place.

Aviation officials lifted the airspace ban on Tuesday night, saying it was now safe for planes to fly.


  • UK and European airports reopen for business
  • Many flights still cancelled or delayed
  • Airlines begin to repatriate stranded passengers
  • 80% of European flights due to operate
  • Flight disruptions cost airlines $1.7bn (1.1bn)
  • Icelandic volcano has lost 80% of its intensity
Updated: 17:36 BST, 21 April

For the first time in almost a week, there have been scenes of joy at UK airports with passengers finally arriving home.

But the departures and arrivals boards at many airports remain full of cancellations.

Transport Secretary Lord Adonis admitted to the BBC that the government had been "too cautious" but said the regulators needed to have time to test the impact of the ash.

Officials from Airline Co-ordination Limited said 90% of Heathrow flights were set to resume as normal after 1500 BST. Service should be at 100% by Thursday.

However, that figure includes only regularly scheduled flights, not efforts to clear up the backlog of passengers.

Peter Long, the chief executive of TUI Travel, said that the government's response to the situation had been "a shambles" and it had "underestimated" the consequences of the shutdown.

BA: All long haul flights from Heathrow and Gatwick; some short haul cancellations
Virgin Atlantic: Normal schedule from Heathrow and Gatwick; Passengers booked on 15 April overseas departures also due to return to UK
Thomson: Outbound flights cancelled
Easyjet: Intends to operate 90% of flights
Ryanair: No Northern European flights until 1300 BST on Thursday; No UK-Ireland flights until 1300 BST on Friday
Flybe: Flights from 1300 BST but cancellations expected; 18 morning flights re-scheduled to leave after 1300 BST
*Passengers are advised to contact their airline before travelling to an airport for a flight

Steve Ridgway from Virgin Atlantic Airways said lessons had to be learned and compensation should be made available.

British Airways chief executive Willie Walsh said it would take weeks to get back to normal levels of operation.

"I think this is an airlift that is unprecedented but we will make every effort to get our people back home," he said.

Aviation analyst John Strickland said budget airlines would have fewer planes in far-flung destinations and may recover more quickly.

BAA chief operating officer Nick Cullen said the lack of passengers had led to losses of around £5m to £6m a day.

Mike Carrivick, chief executive of the Board of Airline Representatives, said EU regulations legally obliging airlines to feed and accommodate passengers whose flights were cancelled because of the disruption were "unfair".

He said they should not have been applicable to the mass flight cancellations.

Meanwhile Ryanair has said it will defy the regulations and warned customers it will only reimburse customers their airfare and no additional expenses.

More than 95,000 flights were cancelled across Europe over the past six days, with only a handful of flights taking off and landing at UK airports.

Everyone felt that if the pilot was happy to fly then we were happy to get on
David Jack

The eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull on Thursday sent vast amounts of ash into the atmosphere which poses a threat to aircraft jet engines.

Scientists say the volcano is still erupting but the ash plume is now shrinking, although it remains changeable.

Air traffic control body Nats said that a dense concentration of volcanic ash continued to remain in an area over north west Scotland and could extend further south into Scottish airspace.

The restrictions were lifted after the Civil Aviation Authority said safety tests showed plane engines had "increased tolerance levels in low ash density areas".

Pallab Ghosh
By Pallab Ghosh, science correspondent, BBC News

The question the airline industry is asking is why did it take six days for the Civil Aviation Authority to change its policy, and what does it know now that it did not know a week ago.

Part of the problem faced by the regulator is that there is a limited evidence base with which to make an accurate risk assessment.

Such occurrences are rare so the policy seems to have been one of safety first.

But as the flight ban wore on, with increasing numbers of passengers stranded and the cost to the airline industry rising, the CAA was forced to reassess its policy.

It consulted extensively with jet engine manufacturers and gathered new evidence from test flights through the volcanic ash.

This process led the regulator to conclude on Tuesday night that planes would not stall if they flew through low concentrations of the ash.

It has set down new requirements for airlines such as conducting risk assessments and inspecting aircraft for ash damage before and after each flight.

The decision to close UK airspace and the government's response to the ensuing chaos has sparked a political row.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown defended the time taken to reopen UK airspace, saying decisions had been based on "scientific advice".

"We would never be forgiven if we had let planes fly and there was a real danger to people's lives," he said.

Lord Adonis said the ban was lifted after a "robust safety assessment" based on observational data and test flights. He denied the decision to reopen the airspace was the result of pressure from the airline industry.

Conservative leader David Cameron called for a "rapid inquiry" into how the crisis was handled and said there had been "muddle and confusion" over the information people had been given.

Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg said nobody could have predicted the conditions that caused the situation and that he believed the government "did what they could have done".

In other developments:

  • Helicopter flights over the North Sea were cancelled after two aircraft reported being covered with volcanic ash.
  • All flights out of Orkney and Shetland have been suspended due to the density of ash in the air.
  • Britons stuck on mainland Europe are still being advised to make their way to France's northern ports to catch a ferry across the Channel.
  • Coaches hired by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) have been leaving Madrid bound for northern France and more will be available.
  • The FCO has stepped in after British holidaymakers staged a sit-in on coaches in Calais. They claimed their airline had gone back on its promise of a full passage to the UK. The FCO will pay for the ferry crossing and lay on coaches to take them to their final destinations.
  • Stansted Airport's normal daily capacity of 450 flights was hit by the cancellation of all Ryanair flights.
  • bmi is planning to operate most of its international flights and some UK and Ireland flights on Wednesday. Easyjet is planning to put on extra rescue flights.
  • Rail lines serving London Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted airports will be kept open overnight to help stranded passengers get home.

Anyone concerned about the safety of a British national who is still stranded abroad can call a Foreign Office helpline on 020 7008 0000, or visit its website.

Stranded Britons should contact their local embassy, high commission or consulate.

Met Office forecast map of ash

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