All non-emergency flights were grounded in the UK from noon today as ash from Iceland’s volcanic eruption caused travel chaos.
The disruption, which also hit Irish and north European airspace, left thousands of travellers stranded at home and abroad.
National Air Traffic Services said all flights in UK airspace were grounded from noon to 6pm at the earliest.
A Nats spokesman said: “From midday today until at least 6pm, there will be no flights permitted in UK controlled airspace other than emergency situations.
“This has been applied in accordance with international civil aviation policy. “We continue to monitor the situation with the Met Office and work closely with airline customers and adjoining countries.” Flights were cancelled after ash moved towards UK airspace following an eruption in Iceland yesterday. About 1,300 flights go in and out of Heathrow every day.
A spokesman said: “There is going to be significant disruption, particularly in the peak periods later on.” A Stansted spokesman said 400 to 450 flights operated to and from the airport each day and it was hard to say how many would be affected. He said: “Fortunately we have got past our busiest departure period.
“But this has the potential to affect flights tomorrow and beyond, depending on how long the restrictions are in place.” A Gatwick spokesman said: “We are currently still open but from midday all London airports will have no flow, no arrivals or departures. “At the moment we have had 147 cancellations. It’s a matter of safety. “We would like to remind passengers that they need to ring their airline before setting off.”
Budget airline Ryanair said that from 9am, no further flights were operating to or from the UK today. It added that cancellations and delays could also be expected tomorrow. The restrictions were necessary because volcanic ash can damage aircraft engines.
A BAA spokesman said: “Due to airspace restrictions, in accordance with international regulations as a result of the on-going volcanic activity in Iceland, we anticipate that all flights in and out of Heathrow and Stansted airports will be suspended from 1200 today. “Therefore, we strongly advise passengers intending to fly from this time not to travel to the airport today.
“We will provide further updates as we get more information from air traffic control provider Nats (National Air Traffic Service).” Hundreds of people were evacuated from their homes in south-west Iceland after a volcanic eruption yesterday at Eyjafjalljokull, which is part of the Mount Katla range. Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow airports were shut while airports across the rest of the UK were also badly affected.
Forecasters believe the ash could take a number of days to disperse.
Matt Dobson, a forecaster for MeteoGroup said: “The concern is that as well as the eruption, the jet stream passing through Iceland is passing in a south easterly direction, which will bring ash to the north of Scotland and Denmark and Norway. But it is impossible to say how much ash will come down.
“It could be a threat in these areas from now until tomorrow or Friday.”
A spokesman from Nats said: “The Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre has issued a forecast that the ash cloud from the volcanic eruption in Iceland will track over Europe tonight.
“NATS is working with Eurocontrol and our colleagues in Europe’s other air navigation service providers to take the appropriate action to ensure safety in accordance with international aviation policy.” Around 50 members of the Great Britain Ice Hockey Supporters Club heading for the world championships in Slovenia were stranded at Stansted.
The club’s merchandising secretary, Gordon McQuade, of High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, said a party of supporters had been due to fly out this morning. “The championships are taking place in Ljubljana but we are actually flying to Trieste because ironically Ljubljana airport is closed because the runway is being resurfaced.
“We were due to fly out with Ryanair this morning. All we have been told is that the flight is cancelled and we are just waiting to hear what is going to happen.” The volcanic ash scare also caused Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman Vince Cable to cancel planned General Election campaign visits to Dunfermline and Edinburgh.
Flight Sergeant Andy Carnell, a spokesman for RAF Search and Rescue, said that their aircraft would continue to fly. He said: “We will continue to provide full search and rescue cover, however we will consider all requests we get on a case by case basis. “The ash is mainly affecting the air traffic control radar but we can fly in cloud and reduced visibility.
“As helicopters we don’t rely on approach radar and we can navigate around the UK very easily, and we can fly in areas where there’s very little air traffic control.” The Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre (ARCC) at RAF Kinloss was co-ordinating the transfer of a patient from east Scotland to London.
It would not normally send a helicopter from Scotland so far south but due to the air traffic control (ATC) restrictions there were no civilian aircraft or military fixed wings options available. The call came in at 3.13am and the patient was taken by ambulance from Dunfermline to a Royal Navy Sea King helicopter from HMS Gannet at Prestwick. An RAF spokesman said: “If we had not taken this patient by helicopter then the only other option was a road ambulance.”