Thousands of passengers are stranded as Icelandic eruption closes airports across the Continent

Hundreds of thousands of air passengers were delayed and fresh agony was caused to an industry reeling from financial and industrial strife when a huge cloud of volcanic ash from Iceland hung over northern Europe yesterday.

Britain's airports closed their runways because of the danger that jet engines would be shredded by particles of ash thrown up by Mount Eyjafjallajoekull. As the cloud threw a shadow over commercial aviation, air traffic controllers cancelled more than 3,000 flights, disrupting 371,000 passengers.

After appeals in the media not to set off for check-in, most travellers did not go to airports, but last night thousands were bunkered down in hotels or airport terminals waiting for travel to resume. They may have to wait a while.

Nats, the National Air Traffic Service, said British airspace would be closed until 1pm today – at the earliest. Last night a Nats spokesman said a handful of flights from Northern Ireland and the Western Isles may be permitted to and from Glasgow, Edinburgh and Prestwick, along with North Atlantic flights to Scotland and Belfast, "subject to individual co-ordination". But there were concerns the lockdown elsewhere would last much longer – Eurocontrol, the European flights agency, warned that the ash could last 48 hours, affecting flights well into the weekend.

The UK, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Belgium closed their air space, while France, the Netherlands and Finland partially shut airports. The disruption moved south with the cloud.

Bill McGuire, professor at the Hazard Research Centre at University College London, said: "Volcanoes are very unpredictable ... I would expect this shutdown to last a couple of days. But if the eruption continues, and continues to produce ash, we could see disruption over six months or so."

Nats said the shutdown was the first time in "living memory" that the entire UK airspace had been closed; even after the September 11 attacks in 2001 most UK airspace remained open.

Flights will be disrupted for days as airlines battle to clear the backlog of passengers and ensure planes are in the right place to run a normal service.

Under EU travel laws, passengers will be entitled to receive refunds or fresh flights but not compensation. People who have not yet checked in may not be able to claim for delays to holidays, while many other policy-holders may miss out due to small print ruling out payouts arising from "acts of God".

Airline staff at Stansted told customers it could be closed until Sunday. "People just don't know what to do," said Andy Evans, a stranded passenger. "There are hundreds of people in the queues at the sales desks."

A spokesman at Heathrow said 840 out of 1,250 flights were affected, disrupting more than 100,000 of the 180,000 passengers due to travel yesterday. The delays affected 80,000 passengers at Gatwick, 76,000 at Manchester and 35,000 at Stansted.

Some UK airport terminal buildings were deserted. Stansted spokesman Mark Davison said: "Most people have left the airport or made other arrangements. It's not like when you have fog and people are waiting for the next flight in the morning. It's a total shutdown. It's eerily quiet."

John Strickland, director of JLS consulting, which specialises in air transport, said: "We are looking at a day's business at least wiped out for the airlines. Even if things are meteorologically fine ... the airlines' aircraft and crew will be out of position so they have no choice but to cancel further flights."

The problem began on Wednesday when a volcano below the Eyjafjallajoekull glacier in Iceland hurled a plume of ash 6km to 11km (4 to 7 miles) into the atmosphere. Scientists said the ash did not pose a health threat because it is at such high altitude. However it contains tiny particles of glass and pulverised rock which can damage engines and airframes and ultimately cause a crash.

In 1982 a British Airways jumbo jet lost power in all its engines when it flew into an ash cloud over Indonesia, gliding towards the ground before it was able to restart its engines, prompting the aviation industry to rethink the way it prepared for ash clouds.

The eruption was growing more intense, warned volcanologist Armann Hoskuldsson, of the University of Iceland. To the east of the volcano, thousands of hectares of land were covered by a thick layer of ash, while a cloud was blotting out the sun in some areas along the southern coast of Iceland.

BA Flight 9: A near disaster

In June 1982, Captain Eric Moody was commanding a British Airways Boeing 747 flying from London to Auckland with 263 passengers on board when it encountered an ash plume from the erupting Mount Galunggung in Indonesia. Within minutes, all four engines on BA Flight 9 had failed. Captain Moody's announcement has entered airline folklore. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking," he said. "We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get it under control. I trust you are not in too much distress." The plane managed to glide out of the ash plume and three engines restarted. The ash cloud had not shown up on the weather radar – designed to detect the moisture in clouds – because it was too dry. It clogged the engines, which restarted when enough of the molten ash broke off after solidifying.