Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary attacks Civil Aviation Authority for cautious approach as thousands are stranded at airports

A bitter row broke out yesterday between the pugnacious head of Ryanair and civil aviation authorities over whether it was right to cancel flights across northern Britain because of the Grimsvotn ash cloud.

Hundreds of travellers had to endure cancellations with little indication of when they would be able to travel. Regional airline Loganair scrapped 38 flights while easyJet, Flybe, Aer Lingus and British Airways also called off flights alongside Ryanair, which said it had been forced to cancel all its flights to and from Scottish airports.

Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary denounced the situation after his airline carried out a one-hour test flight 41,000ft over Scotland yesterday morning from Glasgow Prestwick to Inverness, on to Aberdeen and then south to Edinburgh, through the so-called "red zone" of the ash cloud.

Mr O'Leary said there appeared to be no volcanic ash over Scotland that posed a risk to aircraft and that the notion of a "red zone" was a misguided invention of the UK Met Office. It was also a mistake by the Civil Aviation Authority to close the airspace, he suggested. "It's not about picking up the tab for the debacle, it's about learning about the mess and the mismanagement of last year and not repeating the same bureaucratic bungling or mistakes that were made," Mr O'Leary said.

Philip Hammond, the Transport Secretary, said Ryanair's aircraft did not fly through the "red zone" designated by the Met Office and criticised Mr O'Leary for his comments. "It is confusing and irresponsible and I don't condone what Michael O'Leary did this morning," Mr Hammond said last night. "The radar track information suggests the Ryanair aircraft Mr O'Leary has been referring to that flew over Scotland this morning did not fly in any 'red zone', so in fact all he has done is confirm the CAA's own model, which showed there was no ash in the areas where that aircraft flew.

"We have a different solution from last year, and Ryanair have been involved with all the other airlines in discussions to arrive at that solution.

"We know much more precisely where the cloud is and what the density of the cloud is and the airlines have much more discretion in making their own proposed operational plans, putting them to the CAA for approval.

"Under last year's approach, we would now be seeing much more widespread disruption than we are."

He added that the situation would improve. "There is likely to be some continued disruption because of ash at high levels affecting the routes of long-haul flights. But we are not expecting to see airport departures stopped after the early hours of tomorrow morning," he said.

Although air traffic control company Nats expected the ash to have cleared UK airspace by 1am today, European air traffic agency Eurocontrol said between 200 and 250 flights had already been cancelled.

Ryanair issued a warning yesterday evening to customers awaiting flights from Germany that their travel may be disrupted, and Germany's meteorlogical service saidthe ash may cause temporary shutdowns of its northern airspace.

The situation is also being closely monitored by Spanish football fans.

Barcelona announced they would be flying in early for the Champions League final – two days ahead of their expected arrival. Fans may, however, be less flexible in their travel arrangements ahead of the match at Wembley.

Experts warned yesterday that the danger of volcanic ash to aircraft safety should not be underestimated. Dr David Rothery, of the Open University Volcano Dynamics Group, said: "Volcanic ash is a serious risk if it gets sucked into jet engines. There were three separate incidents over Indonesia and Alaska in the 1980s when jumbo jets temporarily lost all their engines, and were lucky to be able to restart them in time to make successful emergency landings."

Q&A: Your rights if a flight is cancelled

My flight has been cancelled – what can I do?

If you are flying from your local airport, you can rebook free of charge for a later flight – or cancel, and apply for a refund, which, with luck, will turn up in a couple of weeks. Of course if you've booked (as many people do these days) an outbound on one airline and an inbound with another carrier, you can only claim back the outbound flight – unless the inbound one is subsequently cancelled. If you're away from home, it's a very different story – the airline has a duty of care to look after you – as long as it's based in the EU. So, stay by the pool and order lunch until the airline can get you home.

But I have to get home...

If you decide to make your own way back, the only liability of the airline is to refund the fare for the cancelled flight. All other costs are down to you – though some travel insurers may compensate you. Your airline may offer to fly you to an alternative destination, such as from Faro to London rather than Edinburgh, but in these cases you must meet the onward travel expenses.

What if I'm outside the EU on a non-EU airline?

Then you could be in trouble. For example, if you're in New York and flying on one of the US airlines, they will say, approximately, "We'll get you where you need to be, as soon as we can, but meanwhile you're on your own" – and that's in a city where accommodation typically costs £200 a night. Even if you booked, say, with BA, you could find yourself flying on a "codeshare" with its partner American Airlines – in which case there is no obligation of care. It's the "metal", ie the airline doing the flying, that counts.