Airlines take ash claims to new Secretary of State

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The Independent Online

Britain's airlines will today demand compensation for the volcanic ash debacle from the new coalition Transport Secretary.

Although meetings have been going on with Whitehall officials since the eruption in Iceland closed parts of European airspace for six days in April, today is the first chance airlines have had to raise the issue with the Secretary of State, Philip Hammond.

There are two elements to the carriers' call for compensation. First, they claim that the authorities over-reacted by instituting a blanket ban on air travel and were too slow to refine the response. Second, they say airlines should not have to bear the costs of disruption caused by natural disasters.

The carriers are seeking hundreds of millions of pounds in recompense from the Government, to cover both income lost during the shutdown and costs incurred looking after passengers who were stranded abroad.

Airlines have paid a heavy price for the ash cloud, with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimating a global price tag of $1.7bn (£1.1bn).

Although no immediate decision on compensation is expected from Mr Hammond, the industry will put its case vociferously. An insider said: "The discussion will come back to the view that not everything was done to prevent the crisis happening in the first place, and also that once it happened not everything was done to re-open airspace quickly."

The first part of the claim focuses on the authorities' responses to the crisis, which the IATA's director general, Giovanni Bisignani, has labelled "a European embarrassment and a European mess".

Airlines are incensed that politicians took so long to appreciate the magnitude of the problem, leaving five full days of chaos caused by the flights ban before ministers from different countries even spoke to one another.

"Europe was closed down, transport systems were paralysed and the airlines were dead scared and working around the clock but [ministers] all went away for the weekend as if nothing was happening," said an industry source. "That is clearly not a sensible way of going about things."

Airlines are also critical of the use of computer models to estimate areas affected by the ash and then to ban all flights, rather than using more sophisticated satellite images to establish precise concentrations of debris and allow airlines to shift flight plans to avoid worst-hit areas.

Since the initial crisis in April, the regulators' models have been refined and subsequent closures have been more targeted. But carriers will also want to discuss how airspace closures are managed in the future.

The other main concern is about responsibility. In the event of natural disasters, governments tend to meet their citizens' needs. But airlines were caught out because aviation legislation states that a carrier must look after its passengers if a flight is disrupted. "It turns out that we are the unlimited insurer of last resort in the case of a natural catastrophe, which clearly cannot be right," one insider said.

Given the parlous state of the public finances, the industry is resigned to a long battle for compensation and is considering at legal options.

"The expectation is that we will not get anything without legal recourse," a source said.