Thousands of passengers across Europe and beyond can smile again after it was declared overnight that the air had been considerably cleared of ashes cloud which had reigned the air waves following a volcanic eruption in Iceland.
Reports claimed the flight seizure have cost the British economy more than £1.6 billion, left 500,000 passengers stranded and disrupted many pupils and students from school resumption after the Easter holiday.
The decision to lift the air ban was made after ministers were put under pressure to explain why British flights were being stopped while most of European air space was open, despite the cloud of volcanic ash from Iceland.
After a meeting between the Civil Aviation Authority, Lord Adonis, the Transport Secretary, and airlines it was agreed to open most British air space, including all airports, from 10pm last night.
Lord Adonis said: “Safety remains my paramount concern.
Since the flight restrictions were imposed, the Civil Aviation Authority has been working around the clock with the aircraft manufacturing industry, the airlines and the research community to better understand how different concentrations of ash affect aircraft engines.
As a result, the Civil Aviation Authority has now established a wider area in which it is safe to fly, consistent with the framework agreed by the EU transport ministers yesterday.”
Willie Walsh, the British Airways chief executive, said it could take “weeks” for the airline industry to return to a “normal level of operation”.
“I do not believe it was necessary to impose a blanket ban on all UK air space last Thursday,” he said.
Mr Walsh said he was “pleased” with the decision to reopen airports, but added: “We will have plenty of time to look back on what could have been done better and I do believe lessons can be learned from this.”
Aviation experts said the Government had previously ignored calls for an urgent review of the no-fly zone, which threatened to bankrupt several airlines.
Despite bold statements from the Prime Minister about emergency transport for tourists, fewer than 300 Britons were directly helped, after being allowed to board a Navy vessel in Spain, to the dismay of those left behind. As the crisis entered its seventh day:
- Thousands of schoolchildren faced major disruption to lessons and exam preparations because they or their teachers could not get home
- Airlines were facing a compensation bill from stranded passengers of at least £250? million
- Tourists were warned it could take “weeks” to repatriate everyone.
Airports dealt with 200 flights yesterday, eight per cent of usual operations, but only in Scotland and the North East.
The restrictive regime compared with 60 per cent of normal services taking off and landing in mainland Europe, amounting to 14,000 flights from hubs including Paris and Amsterdam. More than 20 long-haul British Airways flights took off from abroad yesterday, expecting to land in Britain later today.
Airlines and airport operators said the CAA and NATS, the air traffic control centre, had “over-reacted” to the crisis caused by the ash cloud over Europe and the Atlantic.
David Henderson, of the Association of European Airlines, said Britain had taken a stricter approach than other parts of Europe.
“We had hoped there would be genuine co-ordination across Europe,” he said. “We are disappointed that this has not happened.
“There are probably 100 to 150 airlines in Europe, some large, some small, some tiny and some that are not going to be around in a week or two, that’s for sure.”
Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, questioned the science behind the lockdown.
“What I would really like to know is whether we are absolutely certain that the initial decision taken to close down UK aviation at this level of risk was correct,” he said.
It emerged that two vastly differing maps of the ash cloud were being circulated by official bodies.
One, prepared by the government-controlled Met Office and used by the CAA and Nats, showed the ash cloud covering much of Europe.
A second, produced for the European air traffic control co-ordinator Eurocontrol limited the areas of danger to two high-density clouds over the Atlantic.
This second map and extensive test flights which have shown no negative effects on aircraft helped persuade many other European countries to reopen their air space.
European aviation ministers agreed to draw up plans to allow aircraft to fly in areas where the low concentration of ash from the Eyjafyoll volcano was not considered to pose a safety threat.
This policy meant that, ironically, other airlines were able to fly aircraft over London while British planes remained grounded.
Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat transport spokesman, said Britain’s cautious approach was at odds with the more “pragmatic” response of other European nations.
Theresa Villiers, the shadow transport secretary, said the Labour government failed to deal promptly with the crisis.
A spokesman for the British Airline Pilots Association said he was disappointed that the Government failed to act on its call for an aviation summit, which would have brought all the experts together.
“Clearly, pilots have considerable practical expertise and it is a pity this has not been drawn upon by the Department for Transport,” he said.
David Frost, the director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “When this is all over, a thorough review is clearly needed about how the authorities reacted.”
Bob Ainsworth, the Defence Secretary, whose department is responsible for the Met Office, made no public statement about the crisis.