Ryanair bosses are to meet air-safety officials today in a bid to have flight restrictions lifted, after the airline, as well as Aer Lingus and easyJet, were forced to cancel flights as a new ash cloud made its way towards the UK.
Euro-control, the organisation which monitors safety across European airspace, has said it is expecting the cloud of volcanic ash from Iceland to be over London Heathrow by 1pm today.
The organisation said it was too early to say what the cloud will mean for flights, but airlines have already announced cancellations to many services to and from airports in Scotland and Newcastle.
Following cancellations by Aer Lingus and Ryanair of flights in and out of Scotland, EasyJet said it too had cancelled flights to and from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and Aberdeen between 5am and 1pm today.
In a statement, the airline said: “The CAA (British Civil Aviation Authority ) and the UK Met Office’s Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre are predicting that it is likely that there will be a high density ash cloud over Scotland from this morning. As a result of this the Civil Aviation Authority has declared a temporary danger area over Scotland from 01.00 to 13.00 hours.
“In light of this information, easyJet has cancelled flights to and from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and Aberdeen, operating between 05.00 hours and 13.00 hours.
“We therefore strongly advise that all passengers check the status of their flight at easyJet.com before travelling to the airport.
“For cancelled flights, easyJet offers its passengers the option of transferring their flight free of charge or a refund on the internet.
“While the circumstances are outside of the airline’s control, easyJet apologises for any inconvenience caused and would like to reassure passengers that we are doing everything possible to minimise the disruption.”
Travel plans were thrown into disarray for hundreds of passengers while even US president Barack Obama was forced to amend his itinerary, flying into London earlier than planned from Dublin to avoid the dense plume drifting towards the UK.
Forecasters predicted the volcanic cloud, which billowed from Iceland’s Grimsvotn volcano, would hit Scotland and Northern Ireland in the coming hours, with much of the country being covered by midday.
But as a string of carriers announced cancellations, British Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said passengers “have got to learn” to live with chaos caused by volcanic activity in Iceland.
“My understanding is that we have gone through an unusually quiet period for volcanic eruptions in Iceland over the last 20-odd years and we are moving into a period when there is likely to be significantly more volcanic activity,” he told BBC2’s Newsnight last night.
“So this is clearly something we have got to learn to plan around. We have got to learn to live with it.”
But he insisted there were now “much more robust systems” to “minimise the disruptive effect”.
Since last year’s eruption, the authorities have gained a “much better understanding” of the risk from ash clouds and are able to assess the thickness of different patches as well as the possibility of flying over or below a cloud, he said.
“Most importantly, the basic situation now is that the threshold for most aircraft is 20 times where it was last year. We have got from 200 microgrammes per cubic metre to 4,000 microgrammes per cubic metre as the threshold up to which most aircraft can fly.
“What we can’t promise is that there won’t be disruption when there is a major natural event like this.”
However, he insisted the airlines were “making the decisions”.
“They have looked at the projections for tomorrow and said ‘This is not something we can fly in’. If they wanted to make a safety case to fly in the conditions that are modelled for tomorrow, they would have to put forward a safety case to the CAA that would then consider it.”
'A gross over-reaction to a very minor risk'?
According to the CAA, all British aircraft can fly in medium density ash.
However, the Met Office charts show that the levels are higher than this below 35,000 feet, meaning planes could have to navigate routes around the plume.
A CAA spokesman said the cloud, as it is now, could “potentially” cause serious disruption.
“At this moment in time it is difficult to know what might happen,” she added. “If we have high density ash at low levels it may be that you can fly above it.”
Met Office forecaster Charles Powell said the plume could hit parts of Scotland between 1am and 7am and large swathes of Britain by lunchtime.
“This area of ash will start to make its presence felt across parts of Scotland and Northern Ireland and by midday I think much of the UK will be covered,” he said.
Responding to warnings, British Airways announced it would not operate any flights between London and Scotland before 2pm.
Only last year, the airline’s then chief executive Willie Walsh criticised airport closures and said blanket bans imposed on flying were “a gross over-reaction to a very minor risk”.
Dutch airline KLM said 16 flights scheduled to and from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, and Newcastle would be cancelled, while UK airline Eastern Airways axed all flights and easyJet grounded some planes.
Glasgow-based carrier Loganair – which operates most of its services within Scotland – said it had scrapped 36 flights due to depart between 6am and 1pm. This excluded its inter-isles flights in Orkney. Some of its flights to Birmingham and Belfast were also cancelled.
Aer Lingus said it had cancelled 12 flights to and from Glasgow, Dublin, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Shannon and Cork.
But Ryanair said it objected to advice from the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) not to operate flights to and from Glasgow, Prestwick, Edinburgh or Aberdeen until at least 1pm.
In a statement on its website, the airline said: “Ryanair strongly object to this decision and believe that there is no basis for these flight cancellations and will be meeting with the IAA on Tuesday morning to have this restriction on Ryanair flights removed as a matter of urgency.
“Ryanair believe that there is no safety risk to aircraft on fights operating to and from Scotland and together with other airlines will be complaining to the Transport Minister and regulatory authorities about these latest and unnecessary cancellations.”
While further disruption is expected later in the week, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has stressed that the UK is in a much better position to deal with the problem than it was last year when Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull erupted, causing the closure of airspace and the cancellation of thousands of flights.
But the White House opted to take no chances ahead of the president’s highly-anticipated state visit to Britain.
Mr Obama was due to arrive in London from Ireland today but instead flew into Stansted on Air Force One last night.
Football club Barcelona saw its travel plans thrown into disarray ahead of the Champions League final against Manchester United on Saturday. The Catalan club will wait for today’s forecast before deciding when players will travel to London for the game.
Mr Hammond said the situation would be monitored continuously, in conjunction with the Met Office.
A CAA spokesman said: “We are in a totally different world as far as procedures go now compared with last year.
“If we have the same level of ash as we did last year, there will not be the same problem. Airspace will not be closed and we will notify airlines when the Met Office predicts there are medium or high levels of ash present,” the spokesman said.
“If an airline has done a risk assessment as to how it will fly safely in medium or high ash levels and has liaised with aircraft manufacturers and engine makers, then they will be able to fly if the CAA considers it acceptable.
“No UK airline has applied to fly in high-density ash, but a number have applied for, and been given, permission for flying in medium ash.”