As the stranded return home, thousands more are left in limbo

Travel firms are mounting a massive operation this weekend to bring back Britons still stranded abroad by the no-fly zone.

Tens of thousands of passengers delayed by the ash cloud from the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland are expected to return on specially laid-on flights. The travel organisation Abta said it was aiming to have repatriated more than 100,000 British passengers by tomorrow night, half the total number of passengers stranded during the crisis. But it admitted that despite the extra services, thousands will remain stuck in foreign airports, sea ports and emergency accommodation for days to come.

Mark Tanzer, Abta's chief executive, said: "While most flights are back to normal, and most stranded British passengers will be back by the end of this weekend, there is still quite a high level of disruption. In some areas of the world, there is a significant lack of air capacity to enable British people to be returned quickly."

UK airspace was shut for six days following the volcano eruption 10 days ago. Yesterday the invisible cloud, which aviation regulators feared would stall jet engines, was still hanging in British airspace, disrupting flights over western Scotland and the Orkney and Shetland islands.

However, the RAF's Typhoon Eurofighters took to the skies again after tests showed volcanic ash found in engines on Wednesday had not caused any damage. The skies also buzzed with commercial aircraft, with two of the biggest airlines operating out of Britain – British Airways (BA) and Ryanair – running full services.

BA was laying on extra flights to Antigua and St Kitts in the Caribbean and to Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt to bring holidaymakers home. This weekend the airline will fly passengers back from New York, Newark, Hong Kong, the Maldives, Mumbai and Bangkok.

But a spokesman for the airline warned: "The numbers of people wanting to fly back to the UK from many destinations remains an enormous challenge and is the main focus of our operational and commercial teams."

The no-frills carrier Ryanair – which initially refused to refund the travel expenses of stranded customers – was also running extra flights to repatriate travellers from Spain and the Canary Islands. While air remained the most likely mode of travel, some passengers returned by sea.

At Southampton, 2,200 rescued holidaymakers arrived back from Spain on a new luxury cruise ship, the Celebrity Eclipse. Many had endured overnight coach journeys of up to 16 hours to board the £500m boat at Bilbao in Spain.

Derek Brooks, a headteacher, had been forced to miss his mother's funeral because of the disruption.

Mr Brooks, 56, who had been due to fly back with his wife Jackie for his mother Betty's funeral on Tuesday, said: "We tried anything and everything to get back, either hire car or train, but it was not feasible because of the uncertainty at Calais, so we gave up. It was obviously very distressing at the time, but knowing my mother's sense of humour, I think she would have totally seen the funny side of it."

In the final hours of the journey, the cruise liner gave passengers free drinks. Alice Hoon, a school support worker, on board with her family, said: "We're relieved to be back in the UK and the ship's brilliant, we have loved it.

"We now have a 10-hour journey to Glasgow Airport to pick up our car and then another hour home but we have to do it," she added.

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