Day 5: Global Travel Crisis

April 19, 2010
Update, 4:20 p.m. EDT: NATS has announced that Scottish airspace and Scotland's mainland airports will open at 7 a.m. BST tomorrow (2 a.m. EDT), and English airspace as far south as a line between Teeside and Blackpool. Southern airports may open later in the day, depending on the position of the ash cloud. It's too early to report on the reaction of the airlines and the status of flights, but we'll keep you updated.

(6:15 a.m. EDT) -- Most airports in northern and central Europe remain closed today due to the continuing presence of volcanic ash in the air. Britain's air traffic control body, NATS, advises that U.K. airspace will be closed until at least 1 a.m. BST on Tuesday, April 20 (8 p.m. tonight EDT), with a further update due at 3 p.m. BST today (10 a.m. EDT).

As airlines and stranded passengers become desperate, however, things are starting to happen, albeit slowly.

The British government has agreed to supply three Royal Navy ships to help get stranded passengers back to the U.K. from Spain and French Channel ports. At present, the destination of these ships and how to get on one has not been made clear.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has had talks with Spanish premier Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero about using Madrid as a hub through which to get stranded passengers from further afield, for example, the USA, back to the U.K. Transatlantic flights are still getting into Madrid and other southern European airports, including Athens and to a limited extent, Rome. The problem for Brits returning from fly-cruises abroad is that rail and coach services onwards from Madrid are all full; the government is now talking about laying on coach, ferry and train services.

British Airways, KLM and Lufthansa carried out test flights over the weekend through where the ash cloud is estimated to be and have reported no damage to their aircraft. The airlines are now pressurising Eurocontrol, the organisation in charge of Europe's air safety, for limited corridors of air space to be opened up.

According to reports on the BBC and Sky News, the ash cloud from Iceland's Eyjafjallajoekull volcano has reduced slightly this morning and the wind direction is expected to move on Friday, which should disperse the dangerous particles to the north and east, away from Continental Europe. This would mean airspace could open again –- but with 150,000 Brits stranded, according to the Association of British Travel Agents, the backlog could take a long time to clear.

Worryingly for passengers in North America, the ash cloud has now drifted west to the eastern tip of Canada and flights from St John's, Newfoundland, are being disrupted as a result.

The message to anybody flying to Europe to join a ship, or hoping to fly out of the U.K. to join a ship, remains the same: Don't try to set out on your journey without checking with your cruise line, airline or travel agent what arrangements are in place.

Read the latest from cruise lines on cancellations and repatriations.

--by Sue Bryant, Cruise Critic Contributing Editor

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