Winds set to clear away ash cloud

Airlines ran near-normal services today after new measures to tackle flight disruption caused by the ash cloud were introduced.

And the Met Office forecast more good news predicting south-westerly winds will blow the Icelandic volcanic ash away from the British Isles.

But the Met Office was forced to defend its forecast that had led to flight restrictions yesterday at a number of airports, including Heathrow and Gatwick.

But Virgin Atlantic boss Sir Richard Branson said the restrictions were "unforgivable" and authorities dealing with the crisis had made "crass, stupid decisions".

From noon today, a new Time Limited Zone was introduced which will allow planes to travel through higher ash densities.

To operate in the new zone, airlines must present the Civil Aviation Authority with a safety case that includes the agreement of their aircraft and engine manufacturers.

Met Office senior press officer John Hammond insisted there had been ash covering the UK on Monday.

"The good news is that the remains of the ash cloud are moving away from the British Isles and we will be getting winds that are coming up from the south west," he said.

"The problem has been that we have been having long periods where winds have come from the north west and this has blown the ash over the British Isles."

Sir Richard said the airport closures had cost Virgin around 120 million US dollars (£83 million).

He said: "We can do without the authorities making crass, stupid decisions.

"When this crisis started more than a month ago, the then Government and the authorities should have got this sorted out. We should not have had the horror stories. The sense of urgency to get everything sorted out should have been enormous.

"Lives have been lost. People in hospital have been unable to receive vital organs. Hundreds of thousands of passengers' lives have been made a misery.

"It should have been realised that airlines, aircraft manufacturers and engine makers could deal with this problem and that planes can these days fly though the kind of conditions that would have prevented flights in the past.

"We must ensure that never again do we get into a situation where we have completely unnecessary airspace closures. Yesterday's closures, many weeks after the original eruption, were unforgivable."

Sir Richard said he did not mind paying millions of pounds to passengers caught up in disruption if there was a good reason for delays and cancellations.

He added: "This, though, is money down the drain. The situation has weakened our airline and upset our passengers."