Ash cloud crisis becomes political

By Ian Dunt

The political ramification of the ash cloud hovering over Europe started to reach a crescendo this morning, as industry and passengers looked for someone to blame and the prime minister’s emergency plans came under the spotlight.

The Met Office and Nats, the air traffic control centre, were publicly criticised by eleven major British airlines last night. The Met data was said to be “very limited” and the interpretation Nats put on it was flawed, the airlines said.

Much criticism was aimed at the Met Office’s Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC), whose initial warning triggered a European-wide ban via Eurocontrol, the air traffic control centre in Brussels.

More than 100,000 Britons remain stranded abroad, despite a partial opening of European airspace.

Gordon Brown seized on the crisis yesterday, promising tough, decisive action to get Britons home.

But his decision to order HMS Ark Royal and HMS Ocean on a joint rescue operation was criticised today, with Colonel Richard Kemp, former chairman of the government’s Cobra crisis committee, telling the Times it could be an election trick.

“I would also question whether the Royal Navy warships really exist for this type of mission and indeed whether such a task would be contemplated outside an election,” he wrote.

There were also problems with the rail strategy intended to get passengers back from Madrid airport, with strikes crippling France.

Following a Cobra meeting into the crisis yesterday, a Downing Street spokesman said: “The prime minister chaired a second meeting of the Civil Contingencies Committee this evening.

“The committee were clear that in light of the ongoing uncertainty about the situation regarding flights, the government should continue to do whatever it can to help get stranded Britons back to the UK using other means.

“This includes making additional ground transport available and providing consular assistance to individuals as the prime minister set out this morning.

“The group will meet again tomorrow.”

Some flights have begun to take off from the UK today, all from Scotland. Schedules are constantly changing, however, and any air passengers are advised to check with their airline before travelling to the airport.