Warning of more disruption to flights from volcanic ash cloud
Parts of the UK’s airspace are at risk of closure from Sunday because of volcanic
activity in Iceland, the Department for Transport has said.
Disruption could hit airports in south-east England until Tuesday, it warned.
Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said the situation was “fluid” but that passenger
safety was the top priority.
British Airways will discuss the likely impact with air traffic control body,
Nats. Airport operator BAA said the situation would be clearer by Sunday.
Ash from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano has caused disruption to thousands of flights
Meanwhile, Italy has fined Irish airline Ryanair 3m euros ( £2.5m) for failing
to help some passengers after cancelling their flights during the crisis.
Ministers agreed on Saturday that five-day ash prediction charts would be made
available on the Met Office website.
The Department for Transport said in a statement: “Within this timeframe, different
parts of UK airspace – including airspace in the south east – are likely to be
closed at different times.”
Previous forecasts were only given for the following 18 hours.
Transport Secretary Mr Hammond said the five-day forecasts would ensure “airlines,
other transport providers and the public [had] the best possible information”.
But he stressed the situation “remained fluid” and the forecasts – based on assumptions
about future volcanic activity and prevailing weather conditions – were “always
liable to change”.
“Nats – the UK’s air traffic services provider – will advise of any airspace
closures as and when they become necessary and I urge passengers to check with
their airlines before taking any action,” he added.
‘No firm details’
The Met Office said its charts would be updated every six hours. A spokeswoman
said the ash plume was currently about 25,000ft (7,620m) high, with winds blowing
from the north west, creating a risk of ash being blown over UK airspace.
But she said the wind was expected to change direction in the middle of next
week, taking ash away from the UK.
Scottish transport minister Stewart Stevenson said he welcomed the five-day forecasts,
but called upon airlines to be “consistent” to “avoid unnecessary and unhelpful
He said he had written to BA chief executive Willie Walsh after the airline cancelled
three flights to Scotland on Friday.
A BA spokesman said the flights were cancelled as a “precaution”, and added it
was “constantly in touch with Nats, the CAA and the Met Office… and it would
be guided by safety considerations first”.
“The latest advice is that we may have disruption from 6pm tomorrow but we won’t
know until nearer the time,” he added.
BA is facing strike action in the coming days, potentially adding to travel disruption.
A spokesman for BAA, which operates Heathrow, Stansted and Southampton airports
in the south of England and Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen airports in Scotland,
also welcomed the new five-day forecasts.
“It’s good to have information in advance but we are acutely aware that things
can change quickly,” he said.
“Over the next 24 hours we’ll have a much clearer idea how it will affect southern
England,” he added.
A spokeswoman for Gatwick Airport said it was “business as usual”, with a flight
schedule “operating normally” unless it was “informed otherwise” by the Department
for Transport or the Met Office.
Andrew McConnell, a spokesman for easyJet, said it was “frustrating” that the
modelling regulators were using meant airport and airspace closures could only
be confirmed six hours in advance.
[There is a video clip
– Peter Gibbs explains how the ash cloud is moving into UK airspace].
He said the airline planned to operate between 95% and 99% of its flights on
Sunday morning, with Belfast “the only area of concern”.
“As the situation is changing throughout the night we advise passengers to check
easyjet.com before leaving home,” he added.
Meanwhile, Network Rail said it was boosting services to and from Scotland, and
to Irish Sea ports.
Robin Gisby, Network Rail’s director of operations and customer service, said,
if necessary, engineering work would also be postponed to allow more services
“The situation is being kept under review and we will continue to develop robust
contingency plans,” he said.
Dr Dougal Jerram, a volcanologist from Durham University, warned the last big
eruption of Eyjafjallajokull – in the 1820s – went on for around two years, and
its current eruption could last “several months”.
But he said the continued eruptions would not necessarily cause problems to air
travel, as a number of factors – explosive eruptions, a concentrated plume and
certain weather patterns – needed to be in place at the same time to create “the
‘Could be worse’
“During the last phase, where it was more explosive, the weather patterns weren’t
so bad and it wasn’t as disruptive as it could be.
“A volcano can be erupting for several years and not cause any problems,” he
In April, airspace across Europe was shut down for five days following concerns
that ash could turn to molten glass in high temperatures, crippling plane engines.
Scientists and engineers have since revised the safe-to-fly threshold, but clouds
of volcanic ash have continued to drift over Europe, causing airport closures,
flight delays and cancellations.
But in the past week, several airports in southern Europe have been forced to
close and flights have been re-routed.
Italy’s civil aviation authority fine on Ryanair comes after it said it knew
of 178 cases of passengers who did not receive mandatory assistance, such as food
– required under EU regulations – between 17 and 22 April.
A spokeswoman for Ryanair, which initially insisted it would only refund the
cost of passengers’ tickets, but later agreed to fully implement European regulations
and pay all “reasonable expenses”, said the allegation was “complete rubbish”.
“Ryanair fully complies with EU [Regulation] 261 and has been complimented by
the EU,” she said.