The nightmare returns: flights cancelled as ash cloud drifts in

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The Independent Online

The spectre of travel chaos is again haunting European air passengers as operators cancelled dozens of flights last night and warned of further delays today because of the volcanic eruption in Iceland.

The ash cloud - and where it's going: click here to download graphic (97k)

The Met Office, which has been monitoring the movement of millions of tons of ash still spewing out of Grimsvotn, said all of Scotland could be engulfed by a thick cloud of debris from 6am, while lower concentrations could affect airspace over Northern England and Ireland.

Europe's air traffic control organisation said volcanic emissions could reach western France and northern Spanish airspace on Thursday if the eruption continued at its present rate.

This weekend is expected to be one of the busiest on the travelling calendar as schools in England and Wales break up for the Whitsun holiday, adding to the 500,000 passengers who take to the skies each day in Britain. Experts said the plume was drifting at a height of 20,000 to 33,000ft – the normal altitude for airliners.

British Airways announced last night that it will not operate any flights between London and Scotland today. The Glasgow-based operator Loganair cancelled 35 flights last night and easyJet cancelled flights to and from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and Aberdeen between 5am and 9am today. Dutch airline KLM said 16 flights scheduled for today to and from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, and Newcastle will be cancelled.

Transatlantic flights could also be affected, while National Air Traffic Services (Nats) advised passengers to check with their airline before travelling to all Scottish airports.

The ash forced Barack Obama to fly to London for his state visit a day ahead of schedule as the first commercial UK flight cancellations were announced.

Philip Hammond, the Transport Secretary, said disruption was likely. "Clearly, this is a natural phenomenon which we cannot control, but the UK is now much better prepared to deal with an ash eruption than last year," he said.

Financial markets reacted nervously, with airline and travel shares falling sharply. Last year's eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano brought the aviation industry in Europe to a virtual standstill – 100,000 flights were cancelled, 10 million passengers were stranded and the ash cloud cost the industry an estimated £1bn. The decision to order a blanket closure of European airspace was fiercely criticised by many airlines.

"The regulators are a bit more sensible than they were last year," said Michael O'Leary, chief executive of budget airline Ryanair, the only airline to be running a full service from Edinburgh airport today. "We would be cautiously optimistic that they won't balls it up again this year."

New procedures mean that airlines will still be able to fly in areas of low and medium ash concentration with the approval of the CAA and go around high-density clouds.

Andrew Haines, the chief executive of the Civil Aviation Authority, said: "We can't rule out disruption, but the new arrangements that have been put in place since last year's ash cloud mean the aviation sector is better prepared and will help to reduce any disruption in the event volcanic ash affects UK airspace." Rochelle Turner, head of research for Which? Holiday, said: "Hopefully disruption will be minimal, but airlines will have no excuse if they fail to act quickly to inform passengers of delays."