Brown convenes Cobra meeting as Eyfjallajokull belches its ash over Britain

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in the middle of a General Election campaign, has called an emergency Cobra meeting to discuss the worsening travel crisis as a giant Icelandic volcano continues to spew its ash over Britain and Europe.

Cobra, which stands for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A, is a secure facility of the United Kingdom government that co-ordinates action during an emergency.

Eyjafjallajokull, translated as "island-mountains glacier" from the Icelandic, started erupting on 20th March, but it's only in the last few days that the wind direction has changed to blow its huge ash cloud over Europe.

The ash cloud may be invisible, but it's dangerous to planes and all aircraft in Britain and most of the rest of Europe have been grounded.

The Prime Minister will meet senior ministers, representatives from the Met Office and chief scientific adviser Professor John Beddington at Number 10 at 5pm. Also there will be Transport Secretary Lord Adonis, Chancellor Alistair Darling, Business Secretary Peter Mandelson, Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Cabinet Office minister Tessa Jowell.

It has been calculated that up to a million Britons are stuck in other European nations due to the flight ban.

Because schools and businesses face major disruption due to the flight ban, it hasbeen feared that the economy could lose millions of pounds a day as a result.

A spokesman for airport operator BAA said: 'Following the latest advice from Nats, all flights to and from all BAA airports are suspended until 1am tomorrow at the earliest."

Countries operating the no-fly zone include: Austria, Belgium, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, most of France, most of Germany, Hungary, Ireland, northern Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, Slovakia, north Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine and the UK.

One Dutch geologist has said that there were no signs that the volcano was calming down. The last time it started to erupt, in 1821, it lasted, on and off, for two YEARS, but an eruption on a similar scale nowadays would be far more catastrophic.

The flight ban has also meant that Prince Charles and Foreign Secretary David Miliband have been unable to attend the funeral of the former Polish president.

Meanwhile, some places in the UK, such as the Thames Valley, have also reported that some of the volcanic ash has landed, coating vehicles.

Gordon Brown convenes emergency cabinet meeting as airlines begin test flights in bid to re-open skies

By Daniel Boffey, James Tapper and Rhianna King
18th April 2010
Daily Mail
  • Skies closed in 'major part of European airspace covering around 25 countries'
  • Flights grounded til 7am with tomorrow's forecast 'not encouraging'
  • More than 63,000 flights cancelled since 'Ash Thursday'
  • Schools, businesses hit as thousands remain stranded with 'no end in sight'

The extent at which the Icelandic volcano's ash cloud has shrouded Europe. When it lasted erupted, it did so for 2 years, from 1821 to 1823.

Gordon Brown will hold an emergency meeting with the Cobra committee this afternoon to discuss the worsening travel crisis resulting from the Icelandic volcano, as major airlines carry out test flights in order to pressure authorities to lift the flight ban.

The Prime Minister will meet senior ministers, representatives from the Met Office and chief scientific adviser Professor John Beddington at Number 10 at 5pm.

A Downing Street spokesman said: 'The Prime Minister has called a ministerial meeting today to discuss the ongoing situation resulting from the presence of volcanic ash in the atmosphere, and look at what more the Government can do to mitigate its effects.

British Geologists claims this image, taken on the last flight from Reykjavik to Glasgow on Friday before the UK airspace was shut, is one of the first shots of the ash plume from the eruption of the

'The meeting will cover a number of issues, including the assistance being provided to those Britons who have been unable to travel home, and the implications for industry.

'They will also look at what more can be done on a European level.'

Ministers attending the meeting at 5pm will include Transport Secretary Lord Adonis, Chancellor Alistair Darling, Business Secretary Peter Mandelson, Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Cabinet Office minister Tessa Jowell.

The meeting comes as airlines begin carrying out test flights in order to convince the authorities to lift the ban.

British Airways said it was staging a test flight, to leave from Heathrow airport in west London, later today.

The airline added: 'In line with action taken by other European airlines and, subject to approval by the relevant authorities, we are planning to operate a test flight later today.'

The BA spokeswoman could not say what height, or where, the aircraft would go.

Earlier, Dutch carrier KLM said it had flown a plane through the cloud of volcanic ash with Dutch airspace without suffering any damage.

The volcanic eruptions spewing ash into Britain's skies intensified yesterday as officials warned that the ominous cloud will hover above the country for at least a week

The airline said it planned to return seven planes without passengers to Amsterdam from Dusseldorf today, with the hope of receiving permission to resume passenger operations as soon as possible.

Shadow transport secretary Theresa Villiers said: "With thousands of Britons stuck in airports overseas, it is hugely worrying that there is no end in sight for the flight ban.

'This crisis is costing the economy millions of pounds every day and causing huge amounts of travel misery. Those who are stranded abroad need reassurance from the Government that they are doing all they can to help get people home and address the crisis.'

As travellers wait anxiously for any good news regarding the resumption of flights, schools and businesses face major disruption this week with thousands of Britons remaining stranded all over the globe, amid warnings the unprecedented air lockdown over Britain could last until the end of the week.

Schools across the country are expecting hundreds of empty desks and a shortage of teachers as staff and pupils remain stuck abroad, as the ash cloud from the Icelandic volcano continues to wreak havoc.

Supply teachers have been put on standby to cope with the expected drop in staff turnout.

Air traffic control company Nats said the ash cloud caused by an erupting Icelandic volcano was 'currently spread across the UK,' creating further uncertainty for travellers attempting to make it back to the UK.

The lockdown over Britain has been extended to 7am tomorrow morning.

Martin Ward, the deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders said: 'No doubt many schools will be short staffed on Monday because of teachers being stranded abroad.'

'However, except in very small schools, this hopefully will not cause major disruption as schools have good contingency plans in place to cope with teacher absence. We will have a better picture on Monday when schools return for the new term.'

In Hertfordshire alone, 352 children are stuck abroad on school trips in 11 different countries from Iceland to Hong Kong.

One head teacher in London has reported he has at least 12 teachers stranded overseas.

Mark Southworth, head teacher of Woodcote High School in Croydon, said at least 14 per cent of his

workforce would be missing.

Nats said today: 'Conditions around the movement of the layers of the volcanic ash cloud over the UK remain dynamic.

'We are maintaining close dialogue with the Met Office and with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in respect of the international civil aviation policy we follow in applying restrictions to use of airspace. We are currently awaiting CAA guidance.'

Nats added: "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.

There may be limited opportunity in Orkney and Shetland from 7pm today for some flights to operate under individual co-ordination with air traffic control.

Heavy skies: Farmer Thorarinn Olafsson tries to lure his horses back to the stable as a cloud of black ash looms overhead in Eyjafjoll, Iceland

The volcano, pictured here yesterday, is still causing disruptions to air passengers and is set to cause further misery for travellers into next week

A spokesman for airport operator BAA said: 'Following the latest advice from Nats, all flights to and from all BAA airports are suspended until 1am tomorrow at the earliest.

'Passengers should not travel to these airports until further notice and should remain in touch with their airlines.

Brussels-based air traffic control centre Eurocontrol said today that skies were closed and planes grounded 'in the major part of European airspace,' covering around 25 countries.

Fewer than one in six flights will operate - with only 4,000 out of the planned 25,000 taking to the sky.

In the four days since the ash struck on Thursday more than 63,000 flights have been cancelled.

Countries operating the no-fly zone include: Austria, Belgium, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, most of France, most of Germany, Hungary, Ireland, northern Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, Slovakia, north Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine and the UK.

Eurocontrol said:'In some of these areas the upper airspace has been made available, depending on the observed and forecasted area of possible ash contamination. However, it is difficult to access this airspace as in most cases the surrounding area is not available for flights.'

Southern Europe, including parts of Spain, Portugal, the southern Balkan area, southern Italy, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey remain open and flights are taking place in these areas.

As the uncertainty continued there were warnings the UK economy would suffer as employees wait anxiously to find out when they can return.

The flight shutdown caused by the ash cloud has so far cost the European travel industry more than £1 billion, it was estimated today.

And disruption to passengers globally is likely to continue for at least another two weeks, according to crisis advisory company Lewis PR.

Spokesman Paul Charles, a former senior director at Virgin Atlantic Airways and at Eurostar, added: 'Airlines alone are facing a massive bill from lost revenues and the enormous costs of re-accommodating and repatriating stranded passengers.

Lengthy wait: Passengers queue for train tickets in Rome as the quest for alternative travel arrangements continues

'Travel and transport firms have faced a double-whammy of disruption this year, with snow-related cancellations and now the ash cloud crisis, and several firms are at breaking point.

'Post recession, they have few or no cash reserves to fall back on and will be teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. It is an unprecedented and unsettling time for many in the industry.'

Mr Charles added, "The wider implications will add further costs to the economy, in terms of staff not being able to get back to work because they are stranded and cargo, such as fresh food and vital medicine supplies, not being delivered. There will also be an impact on the May Day bank holiday weekend.

Although the airline industry faces a hefty bill for lost revenues, economists, retailers and City pundits said the eruption was unlikely to derail a fragile recovery - unless the impact lasts for weeks.

Howard Archer, chief economist at IHS Global Insight, said: 'The overall economic impact should be limited even if the problem persists for several more days.

'Obviously though the longer that the problem does persist, the more serious will be the economic repercussions.'

Mr Archer said UK tourism would be affected to 'some extent' - but for those who could not get into the country, there were those who could not get out and would spend money on UK goods and services.

'This will offset at least some of the loss of revenue to hotels and restaurants from people not being able to get here,' he added.

A spokesman for the British Retail Consortium said there could be shortages of more exotic fresh foods but added: 'The vast majority of fresh food sold in the UK is sourced in the UK, and a very small proportion is air-freighted in.

'For non-food goods the majority also tends to be shipped in because it is cheaper. Our members are monitoring the situation but so far it has not had a material impact.'

The continued ban on flights came as an Icelandic geologist warned 'there doesn't seem to be an end in sight.'

'The activity has been quite vigorous overnight, causing the eruption column to grow,' Magnus Tumi Gudmundsson said yesterday.

Dutch geologist Edwin Zanen, who is in Iceland observing the volcano, agreed that there was 'no sign' that the volcano was calming down.

'On the contrary, we can see that at this moment it's extraordinarily active,' he said.

Transport Secretary Lord Andrew Adonis, said the forecast for tomorrow was 'not encouraging.'

'I am in constant contact with both the Met Office and Nats. They are continuing to work with airlines to ensure they are ready to fully exploit any respite in conditions which could allow some flights to operate.'

The start of day three of the chaos caused by Eyjafjallajoekull's eruptions saw the scale of the volcano's emissions grow in intensity with a fresh plume of ash being blasted 30,000ft into the air

'Further test flights will take place today in the UK to help understand the extent of the impact of the ash cloud. I wish to establish, as a matter of urgency, whether some safe flight paths can be identified and opened up to flights within the area affected by ash.

'Test flights are also being undertaken in other European countries. I am in contact with other European transport ministers on this issue, and urgent discussions are taking place with European and international regulatory agencies.

We want to be able to resume flights as soon as possible, but safety remains my paramount concern.'

Lord Adonis added that everything possible was being done to help passengers.

'British embassies and consulates around the world are providing consular assistance to those that need it, visiting airports and working with the local authorities to help stranded UK citizens.

Volcanologists have warned that the eruptions from Mount Eyjafjallajokull could continue for months.

And officials said airlines would continue to be subject to restrictions for as long as ash billows into British airspace.

Graeme Leitch of the Met Office said a change in the wind direction might mean flight restrictions could be lifted but there was no indication that any such change was imminent.

Forecaster Paul Knightley of MeteoGroup predicted the continued activity could herald 'quite a prolonged spell of problems' in the UK, continuing until Friday.

Dr Dougal Jerram, of Durham University's Department of Earth Sciences, said: 'We know when things are going to happen, what is difficult to predict or understand is how long a volcanic eruption is going to go on for. Some are relatively short-lived, but some are months long.'

Particles of ash from the volcano in Iceland were today falling across Britain leaving cars and pavements coated in black dust.

Scientists from Sheffield Hallam University scraped up samples of the material and were later able to confirm that it had come from Eyjafjallajökul.

Dr Hywel Jones, consultancy manager of the university's Materials and Engineering Research Institute, spotted the dust on his cycle ride into work.

Samples were collected from cars parked in Sheffield Hallam's Science Park.

Fallout: Ash from the volcano in Iceland seen under a microscope (left and right). The Health Protection Agency said the ash should not cause serious harm but could cause irritation

Scraped up: The samples were collected from cars at Sheffield Hallam University after dust fell across Scotland and the northern part of the UK

Dr Jones said: 'It was a curiosity factor for me to see if this dust was volcanic ash.

'We analysed the samples and found they contained silicon and oxygen, calcium, aluminium and sodium, which make up volcanic matter.

'It is essentially volcanic rock that has been melted and frozen in the atmosphere.'

Dr Jones said it was rare for a sample of volcanic dust to be collected in Sheffield.

'It is certainly unusual. We have examples of Sahara sand sometimes covering cars but this is clearly a different sample.'

Earlier today, people with breathing problems were advised to stay inside as ash from the volcanic cloud began to fall across the UK.

With no signs of the dust storm abating, medical experts said that those with respiratory diseases should also keep their medication with them at all time.

There had earlier been conflicting advice about the health dangers associated with the dust as one spokesman for the World Health Organisation had issued a blanket warning that everyone should stay inside.

But later in the day, the UN agency gave revised advice, falling into line with the Health Protection Agency (HPA) in Britain and doctors.

Christy Feig, a WHO spokesman, said: 'We'll be recommending people with breathing difficulties stay inside if there is ash settling in their area.

'It's people with respiratory problems that will be most affected.

But if you haven't got a history of respiratory difficulties and you are having problems then it's obviously best to stay inside.'

Sharp-eyed: Dr Hywel Jones was able to collect the ash from some of the cars parked on campus

The Prince of Wales and Foreign Secretary David Miliband last night cancelled their plans to travel to Krakow today for the funeral of Poland's President Lech Kaczynski.

US president Barack Obama also said he would be unable to attend.

The Duchess of Cornwall has already had to cancel a visit to a Polish cultural centre in London to sign a book of condolence for the late president because she was unable to fly from Scotland.

British Airways have cancelled all long and short-haul flights in and out of the UK today.

A spokesman said: 'We are keeping our flying schedule under constant review and will aim to give customers as much notice as possible once we receive more information from Nats.'

Budget carrier Ryanair has cancelled all its scheduled flights to and from the UK, Ireland, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Holland, northern France, northern Germany, Poland and the Baltic States until 1pm tomorrow and easyJet said it was cancelling all flights to and from northern Europe.

Air Ambulance services have also been forced to ground their helicopters across Britain amid fears that the lowering ash level would interfere with flying.

And the Met Office warned that there was growing evidence of ash falling to the ground, which will raise concerns of a health risk for children and the elderly.

With the prospect of days under the cloud of ash, pilots and aviation officials sought to dodge the dangerous grit by adjusting altitude levels.

Germany's airspace ban allows for low-level flights to go ahead under so-called visual flight rules, in which pilots don't rely on their instruments.

Lufthansa took advantage of that to fly 10 empty planes to Frankfurt from Munich on Saturday in order to have them in the right place when the restrictions are lifted, airline spokesman Wolfgang Weber said.

The planes flew at about 3,000 meters (9,843 feet) – well below their usual altitude – in close coordination with air traffic control.

It came as KLM, the Dutch subsidiary of Air France, said it flew a plane through the cloud of volcanic ash last night without suffering any damage.

It says initial inspections afterward showed no damage or irregularities from the ash. It now plans to return seven airplanes without passengers to Amsterdam today.

'We hope to receive permission as soon as possible after that to start up our operation and to transport our passengers to their destinations,' said Chief Executive Peter Hartman, who was aboard Saturday's flight.

The Swiss looked the other direction – above the ash cloud. The Swiss Federal Office of Civil Aviation began allowing flights Saturday above Swiss air space as long as the aircraft were at least at 36,000 feet (11,000 meters). It also allowed flights at lower altitudes under visual flight rules, aimed at small, private aircraft.

The start of day three of the chaos caused by Eyjafjallajoekull’s eruptions saw the scale of the volcano’s emissions grow in intensity with a fresh plume of ash being blasted 30,000ft into the air.

As the day developed, officials at the Met Office confirmed that the new dust – a combination of fine glass and rock – was being blown over the UK where it was settling on top of the cloud created by initial eruptions earlier in the week.

Thomson Airways, the airline for Thomson and First Choice holidays, said all outbound flights over the weekend had been cancelled while British Airways announced that it was suspending all long and short haul flights in and out of Britain today and tomorrow.

A spokesman said: ‘We are keeping our flying schedule under constant review and will aim to give customers as much notice as possible once we receive more information.’

Two British teams are facing potential disruption with Fulham set to travel to Hamburg and Liverpool supposed to be heading to Spain to play Atletico Madrid.

At Nice Airport on the French Riviera, easyJet stopped offering accommodation to passengers, telling them they had run out of available rooms.

Charles-de-Gaulle airport in Paris stands empty yesterday while wind continues to blow ash from the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull through the skies

‘My husband Richard and I will have spent about £2,000 before this is over. It’s enough to drive you to tears.’

And in Malaga, in southern Spain, mum-of-two Carly Milne, 25, from Liverpool, travelling with partner Robert Yates, 33 and daughters Keira, five, and baby Hally said: ‘I’m panicking because I’ve only got a day’s supply of baby milk left and I can’t find the same milk out here. We’ve been offered an alternative flight a week Monday.


‘Robert was due to start a scaffolding job on Tuesday and he’s going to lose that. He was made redundant before we flew out to Spain two weeks ago so we could really have done with the money

‘EasyJet are putting us up in full-board accommodation but there’s always other costs involved in being abroad.’

Back in Britain’s airports, which would usually be packed with passengers returning from their Easter holidays, there was an eerie quiet.

Gatwick Airport should have seen 40,000 passengers catching 250 flights yesterday but instead just a few hundred weary travellers were resigned to another long day waiting in the two terminals.

Shops and restaurants remained open but staff stood around largely unemployed as the businesses lost many thousands of pounds.

However, comedian John Cleese managed to arrive back in England from Norway yesterday after beating flight disruption with a £3,300 cab journey.

He arrived at London’s St Pancras train station after a 15-hour journey which included a 930-mile taxi trip from Oslo to Brussels which he had taken when his flight from Norway was cancelled.

Cleese had been a guest on a talk show in Norway when he got caught up in the travel chaos. The Fawlty Towers star finished the last leg of his marathon trip on the Brussels to London Eurostar.

He said: ‘I had urgent meetings to attend on Monday. That’s why I did it. Luckily the promoter agreed to pay the cost of the journey.’

The air chaos has provided a welcome windfall for taxi firms across Britain. Staff at Glasgow airport said some passengers had been so desperate to travel that they were taking taxis as far as the south of England. One man yesterday paid £600 to be driven to Gatwick.

In Northampton, seven executives, who work for a multinational company, paid Amber Cars its biggest ever fare of £1,200 to drive them from the town to Geneva in Switzerland to catch a flight to Portugal where they had another meeting.

London minicab company Addison Lee said it had received requests for journeys to cities as far away as Paris, Milan, Amsterdam and Zurich.

Eurostar has also benefited – a spokeswoman said it had laid on eight extra services today and will do the same tomorrow to cope with demand.

It expects to have taken more than 50,000 extra passengers between Thursday and tomorrow as a result of the cancelled flights.

But Top Gear presenter James May has been branded ‘irresponsible’ by Icelandic police after it emerged that he drove up the erupting volcano in a stunt for the BBC motoring show.

May went to Iceland last week in the early stages of the eruption and tried to drive a superjeep over a lava flow – but had to reverse quickly when his tyres caught fire.

A safety team was on standby to put out the flames, but last night Sveinn Runarsson, chief superintendent for Hvolsvollur said: ‘We are investigating the matter and we will decide on a penalty by the end of the week. The maximum fine could be up to 300,000 Icelandic Kronur [about £1,500].

‘This is very dangerous and is encouraging others to do the same. Top Gear talked to the authorities but we didn’t think they would be stupid enough to drive on lava.’

A view of the town of Vik in Iceland: The Met Office has warned that there was growing evidence of ash falling to the ground in the UK
We are fortunate in North America to have escaped most of the effects of these most concerning eruptions. On the specific topic of having held an emergency meeting with ministers, this situation is a testament to the effectiveness of the Westminster system of government due to its adaptibility to the circumstances of the day.
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