Air crisis goes political as 150,000 begin journey home

Opposition parties call for inquiry into Labour's 'shambolic' response to volcano
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The Independent Travel

The quiet of the no-fly zone was replaced by the roar of aero engines and a noisy election row yesterday, as jets finally took to the skies to clear the backlog of delays and cancellations, and recriminations flew over whether the Government had been too cautious in backing the six-day ban.

Opposition parties demanded an inquiry into the Civil Aviation Authority's ban on flights in UK airspace from Thursday to Tuesday, when the regulator announced new guidelines allowing the re-opening of airspace closed by the volcanic activity in Iceland.

As some of the 150,000 passengers stuck abroad returned home – with many complaining about a lack of government help – the Conservative leader, David Cameron, called for a "rapid inquiry" into the handling of the crisis. "It is clear that there has been some muddle and confusion in government about some of the information people have been given that doesn't seem to quite stack up," he said.

The Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, whose three young sons were stranded in Spain, called for a "post-mortem" into the Government's response. And the tour giant Tui Travel complained that the Transport Secretary Lord Adonis had given "no clear reason" why the ban had lasted so long. "The Government's response to the crisis has been a shambles," said Peter Long, chief executive of the company, which includes holiday firms Thomson and First Choice.

But Gordon Brown defended the Government's handling of the crisis, stressing that passenger safety had to come first.

Asked why the Government had delayed for six days before lifting the ban on flying, the Prime Minister replied: "To get the right scientific advice. You have got to make sure that people are safe and secure. We would never be forgiven if we had let planes fly and there was a real danger to people's lives."

Speaking on the campaign trail in Cardiff, he added: "We have got the best meteorological office in Europe really... They had to look at what was happening to the volcano, they had to look at how much ash was in the environment. Some of it was actually falling to the ground, so they had to send up test flights with the airlines to look at where and at what altitudes we were seeing these ash clouds."

He was backed by the CAA's chief executive, Andrew Haines, who said said he "made no apologies" for the length of the no-fly period and added that any inquiry into the crisis would support the regulator's actions.

He denied that his organisation had been under government pressure to re-open UK airspace. "A genuine, independent inquiry would back our position. Our position was a robust and safe one," he said. "Lord Adonis has been fantastic over this. Not once did he pressure us to make a decision. We have developed new international guidance which has been applied across Europe."

All UK airports re-opened yesterday but many services were cancelled. Budget airline Ryanair was unable to operate any flights at all. Fellow budget carrier easyJet, which ran about 86 per cent of its scheduled operations, said it was launching 15 special rescue flights to bring back stranded tourists. Bmi said it would operate 90 per cent of its international flights out of Heathrow today and 50 per cent of its domestic services.

British Airways, whose chief executive, Willie Walsh, said he did not believe the "blanket ban" on airspace had been necessary, said it would take time to return to a "full flying programme" as many of its planes and crew were out of position.

Airlines were also criticised yesterday for flouting EU regulations which require them to cover stranded passengers' reasonable expenses. Some have been limiting payments for hotel rooms to several days, while Ryanair said it would reimburse travellers only the original price of their fare.

Mike Carrivick, chief executive of the Board of Airline Representatives, which represents more than 90 airlines, said the EU regulations were "unfair" and were never intended to cover cases such as the ash cloud crisis.

Caroline Lucas, the Green Party leader, was "shocked" by the airline industry's attempts to block passengers' rights. She said: "It is a cynical and irresponsible move, and I urge the Commission to uphold European law, as well as issue an immediate warning to those airlines already refusing to meet reasonable accommodation and refreshment expenses for passengers."

Rochelle Turner, head of research for Which? Holiday, urged people to submit claims for additional expenses caused by the crisis. She said: "Many air passengers have incurred additional costs over the last week – they should get in touch with their airline or insurance company at the earliest opportunity to find what they can claim back."

Airlines demand compensation as bill passes £1bn

The estimated cost to airlines of the volcanic ash cloud now stands at $1.7bn (£1.1bn), and demands for government compensation are gaining momentum as criticism of "poor decision-making" mounts.

The International Air Transport Association (Iata) yesterday said airlines' losses hit $400m during the worst three days of the crisis, double the earlier $200m estimate. British Airways alone is putting its daily losses at up to £20m.

As UK airspace reopened yesterday and the repatriation of tens of thousands of stranded travellers got under way, criticism of government handling of the crisis was adding weight to calls for payouts similar to those made when the 9/11 terrorist attacks shut down US air travel for four days.

Cut-throat rivals are joining forces to push for aid. Airline bosses including those from BA, Virgin Atlantic and easyJet, wrote to the Prime Minister this week claiming that, as a natural disaster, the ash cloud presents "a clear case" for compensation; the Government says the request is being considered. Similar approaches have been made to European authorities.

The Transport Secretary, Lord Adonis, rejected claims that flights could have re-started earlier, stressing that European governments had simply followed guidelines from the International Civil Aviation Authority. But BA's chief executive, Willie Walsh, was saying as early as Monday that test flights showed no ill effects and that blanket restrictions were "unnecessary" – a claim echoed by several major airlines.

Iata's director general, Giovanni Bisignani, said such criticisms add weight to the case for compensation. "This crisis is not the result of running our business badly. It is an extraordinary situation exaggerated by a poor decision-making process by national governments," he said. "Governments should help carriers recover the cost of this disruption."

Sarah Arnott

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