Page last updated at 23:06 GMT, Wednesday, 21 April 2010 00:06 UK
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Albion returns 'rescued' travellers

Thousands of air passengers have returned to the UK after a six-day flight ban caused by volcanic ash.

Others remain stranded overseas, however, and travel companies think it may take weeks to repatriate everybody.

There will be 16 extra night flights at Heathrow, and trains will run from Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted through the night to help people get home.

Transport Secretary Lord Adonis has said the ban was "too cautious" while some airlines want compensation.

Lord Adonis told the BBC that regulators had needed time to test the impact of the ash.

KEY POINTS

  • 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

He said: "In the face of the eruption that took place in the middle of last week, the safety regulators had to deal with the issue of tolerable levels of ash which were compatible with safe operation.

"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."

The Royal Navy's HMS Albion has docked at Portsmouth after picking up more than 450 military personnel and 280 civilians, who had been stranded in Santander in northern Spain and have now disembarked.

Abdullah Ali, 14, who travelled home on the ship, said he bonded with soldiers on board by playing video games, and slept for 20 hours on the 36-hour voyage.

Meanwhile the £500m luxury cruise ship Celebrity Eclipse is heading towards Bilbao in Spain to pick up 2,000 stranded British tourists.

But only customers of Thomson, First Choice, Thomas Cook and the Co-operative Travel Trading Group will be allowed on the rescue mission.

Extra flights

Air traffic control body Nats said there had been 2,600 flights by 1800 BST - around 80% of normal traffic levels and this was set to increase on Thursday.

The Foreign Office said all travellers should contact their airlines and travel providers to find out the latest plans.

LATEST ON FLIGHTS
BA: All long-haul flights from Heathrow and Gatwick operating. Some short-haul cancellations on Wednesday
Virgin Atlantic: Normal schedule from Heathrow and Gatwick. Passengers booked on 15 April overseas departures also due to return to UK
Thomson: Outbound flights from the UK recommence on Thursday
Easyjet: Intends to operate 90% of flights
Ryanair: All flights in northern Europe - except between the UK and Ireland - to operate as scheduled from 0500 BST on Thursday
Flybe: Intends to operate all flights as scheduled on Thursday
BMI: More than 90% of international flights and 50% of domestic flights due to operate out of Heathrow on Thursday
Passengers are advised to contact their airline before travelling to an airport for a flight

Officials from airport capacity body Airline Co-ordination Limited said services at Heathrow Airport should be at 100% by Thursday but that figure included only regularly scheduled flights.

UK airspace was opened at 2200 BST on Tuesday and, despite the homecomings, flight cancellations and delays were still in place throughout Wednesday.

Lord Adonis said tour companies were planning to get more than 200,000 holidaymakers back in the country by the weekend.

In Madrid, Foreign Office minister Chris Bryant said it would be a "complicated" repatriation mission.

He said: "I really don't want to pretend that we can do everything because we can't. The main thrust now has to be by the airlines and tour operators."

But Peter Long, chief executive of Tui Travel, said the government's initial response had been "a shambles" and it had "underestimated" the consequences of the shutdown.

Easyjet chief executive Andy Harrison said his company would be seeking £50m compensation from the government, while British Airways chief executive Willie Walsh said it would take weeks to get back to normal.

Ryanair has said it will defy EU regulations and warned customers it will only reimburse customers their air fare 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.

The eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull on 14 April sent vast amounts of ash into the atmosphere and posed a threat to aircraft jet engines.

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

Nats said a dense concentration of volcanic ash would remain over the north of Scotland until 0100 BST on Thursday.

Passengers toast lucky tickets

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

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

CAA chief executive Andrew Haines said he would not apologise for the delay in opening UK airspace as safety was the first priority.

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

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 the handling of the crisis and said there had been "muddle and confusion" over the information people were given.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, whose three sons were stranded in Spain, said a "post-mortem" of how the situation was dealt with would be needed.

In other developments:

Map of ash forecast

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.



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