The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) assured the public that air services were safe last night, despite the emergency grounding of RAF training flights following the discovery of volcanic ash. Responding to the decision to suspend flights of the £69m Typhoon jets to check for the presence of volcanic particles, Britain's air regulator said commercial airlines had made "no reports of damage to [commercial] planes".
The existence of ash in the Typhoon, stationed at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire, echoed the damage done to a Finnish Boeing F-18 Hornet, which collected sharp volcanic dust following a test flight last Thursday. The Finnish air force released pictures of the engine, saying: "The images show that short-term flying can cause substantial damage to an aircraft engine." Last night, the Ministry of Defence sought to downplay the threat to passengers, saying the ash had not caused any damage. "These are very high-performance jets so they are just being extra-cautious," a spokesman said, adding operational flying would continue.
The CAA said there would be no change to passenger flights as a result of the RAF's "precautionary measure". Commercial flights resumed on Wednesday following the end of a six-day no-fly zone – imposed because of concerns that the ash cloud spewing from an Icelandic volcano would cause jet engines to stall.
Revised airspace guidance for civilian aircraft drawn up this week requires airlines to make damage inspections before and after flights and to report any ash-related incidents to the CAA.
The regulator said there had been "only a very few reports from airlines and, of these, all related to visual sightings". A spokesman said: "There have been no reports of damage to aircraft", stressing that military engines were very different to those on civilian planes.
Airline services almost returned to normal yesterday, allowing thousands of weary Britons stranded abroad to return to the UK. As they returned, Ryanair's combative boss Michael O'Leary reversed the policy he set out in the preceding two days of not reimbursing passengers for hotel rooms and other expenses, in direct contravention of EU law. Mr O'Leary, who had been offering only a refund of fares, said: "If a claim is reasonable, it will be reimbursed. If it isn't, it won't."
He added: "The events of the past seven days, under which Europe's airlines were prevented from flying by the closure of European airspace, highlight how absurd and discriminatory the EU261 regulations are towards Europe's airlines. While ferry, coach and train operators are obliged to reimburse passengers' reasonable expenses, this reimbursement is limited to the ticket price paid to those operators."
He estimated that the airports' shutdown would cost Ryanair between £26m and £30m.
CAA spokesman Richard Taylor said the regulator had emailed Rynair yesterday before the airline's U-turn, reminding it of its legal obligations under the Air Passengers Rights Charter. Passengers would have had to challenge Ryanair in the courts to overturn the policy, but the CAA could have brought its own legal action.
Lord Adonis, the Transport Secretary, welcomed Ryanair's "revised statement", saying the Government and the CAA had told Ryanair "in the strongest terms" that it was expected to comply with the EU regulations. Mr O'Leary responded: "We have caved in to the pressure in the newspapers and from our own customers. We've said we'll comply now, but it's not because of any pressure from some idiot politician."
In the wake of the controversy, Shadow transport secretary Theresa Villiers said a Conservative government would conduct a review of rules governing air passengers' compensation and insurance. In a poll of 2,000 UK travellers by the travel website TripAdvisor, 26 per cent said they thought aviation authorities had overreacted to the dangers posed by the ash, while 68 per cent believed the right decisions had been made.
A cruise to remember?
In ordinary circumstances, passengers would celebrate joining the £1,000-a-week cruise liner Celebrity Eclipse but yesterday they were cursing their bad luck. Instead of arriving fresh-faced and full of expectation on the new £500m ship, which will cruise round the Med and Scandinavia this summer, 2,200 holidaymakers were bedraggled and angry after days of uncertainty and long coach journeys.The boat had been sent to Bilbao in Spain to rescue package holidaymakers with Thomas Cook, TUI and Co-Op Travel Group stranded by the no-fly zone. A fleet of coaches pulled up at the quayside with passengers, who were given £40 each by the companies to spend on the five-star ship during the 30-hour voyage. Prison officer Kev Whitley, 55, from Lincoln, was supposed to return from a holiday in Fuengirola, Spain, on Sunday and described the 14-hour coach journey to the ship as "chaos" – with the coach driver getting lost. Andrea Carlie, 59, from South Anston near Sheffield, said she and her husband David had been treated badly by the travel company Thomson during their seven days. "They have traipsed us about. We have not been told the correct information. We have been treated like cattle," she said. "Thomson have taken the cheapest option and now they are trying to make a publicity stunt out of it, saying how generous they are, but I'm told they are not paying for it." But not everyone was unhappy. George Brash, 48, from Liverpool, said people were "moaning for moaning's sake" and was very happy with his treatment.
Number of Typhoons in the RAF.