Two Royal Navy ships have been deployed to help travellers stranded by the volcanic ash cloud return to the UK, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said today.
The move comes as calls intensify for the no fly ban to be lifted across Europe, with one airline head labelling the handling as “embarrassment”.
The Government has been criticised for being slow to respond to the crisis. However HMS Ocean and HMS Ark Royal will now be made available for the relief effort, and follows a meeting between Brown and the emergency planning committee Cobra in Whitehall.
Brown defended the continuing flight ban saying the safety of air passengers was “paramount”.
A number of European carriers have run test flights which they say have identified no problems operating in the no-fly zones.
British Airways conducted a three-hour test flight between London and Cardiff, with the aircraft flying out over the Atlantic. Willie Walsh, chief executive, joined a crew of four, and described flying conditions as “perfect”.
BA engineers are studying the effects of the flight on engines before concluding whether it is safe to fly or not.
A BA spokesman said: “We would not be doing this if we did not think it was safe and didn’t have the necessary permission. We would not do anything which would jeopardise our crew or aircraft.”
EU ministers are due to hold emergency talks today in an attempt to find a European-wide solution to the crisis.
The cloud of ash is expected to reach the eastern Canadian coast tonight and may not clear until Saturday.
Air traffic controllers have extended a ban on flights over Britain until 1am Tuesday at the earliest.
“Conditions around the movement of the layers of the volcanic ash cloud over the UK remain dynamic,” said a spokesman for Nats, the air traffic control company.
“We are working closely with Government, airports and airlines, and airframe and aero engine manufacturers to get a better understanding of the effects of the ash cloud and to seek solutions.”
British airports remain closed today but airports in Spain, Austria, Finland, Bosnia and Italy have reopened.
Airlines including Lufthansa and Air France joined BA in suggesting it may be safe for European governments to end the unprecedented closure of the region’s airspace.
UK Transport Secretary Lord Adonis confirmed the Government was considering using Spain as a hub to repatriate UK citizens stranded abroad, with the help of the Royal Navy.
He said he could not rule out a bail-out of the aviation industry if firms were faced with ruin as a result of the crisis.