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Transport»Flights resume as ash fear recedes

»Wednesday, April 21,2010

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

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

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

Heathrow would normally handle about 1,250 flights on an average Wednesday but there were no departures until 0806BST when an Alitalia flight left for Rome. The first two BA flights have left Heathrow for Tel Aviv and New York.

UK air traffic control body Nats said it had handled 130 flights over England and Wales, and 35 in Scottish airspace, between 0100 BST and 0700 BST on Wednesday.

About 75% of European flights are due to operate on Wednesday, according to the air traffic agency Eurocontrol.

Frances Tuke, spokeswoman for travel body Abta, said the return to normality would be slow and there was also a risk the ash cloud could return.

"The thing to remember is that aircraft and crew are going to be in the wrong place," she said.

"I know for example that some of our tour operators have decided to cancel their programmes going out of the UK in order to reposition their aircraft and crew. It's a huge logistical operation."

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

"We're now at British Airways going to start the difficult task of getting our stranded customers back home. 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. He also said most people who were booked on flights leaving the UK on Wednesday "would be in luck".

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 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.

The International Air Transport Association estimated the airlines had lost about $1.7bn (£1.1bn) as a result of the travel disruption. Easyjet put its personal expense at £50m.

The restrictions were lifted after the Civil Aviation Authority 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.

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.

Transport Secretary Lord Adonis said the ban was lifted after a "robust safety assessment" based on observational data and test flights.

"The whole of Europe has been in the same position, acting according to the same aviation safety rules," he said. "European safety regulators have been working to properly understand the impact of the ash cloud which has come from Iceland."

Lord Adonis 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.

Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrats' transport spokesman, called for an inquiry but said the government was not responsible for a volcano in Iceland.

"I do think it's important to remember that the government has had to listen to professional advice on this, and I think it's pretty reprehensible for the Conservatives to be almost gleeful about the chaos that there has been," he said.

In other developments:
  • 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.
  • Madrid was being used as a "hub" for Britons flying in from different parts of the world but now airlines say they will not be diverting planes there but flying direct to UK destinations where possible.
  • 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.
  • An Easyjet flight to Prague was the first to leave Stansted Airport in Essex at 0645 BST but the 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.
  • Flights continue to arrive and depart from Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh airports, which had been open for a part of Tuesday, but passengers were warned of delays and cancellations.
  • Rail lines serving London Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted airports will be kept open overnight to help stranded passengers get home.
  • Network Rail has also cancelled weekend engineering work on the Anglo-Scottish routes - the east and west coast main lines.
  • Members of the Unison union passed an emergency motion at their annual conference calling on the NHS to allow employees stranded overseas to take special paid leave.

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.

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