MILLIONS of pounds are being lost to the regional economy because of the continuing ban on air travel, airport bosses said last night.
With flights cancelled until at least 7pm this evening, fears are growing that the fall-out from ash blown into British airspace from the still erupting Mount Eyjafjallajokull volcano could push the region back towards recession.
Newcastle International Airport, where planes have been grounded since Thursday, is facing losses of over £100,000 per day in a situation described as “unprecedented” by its bosses.
A total of 45,000 people have been affected, with 450 flights from Newcastle cancelled while billowing ash makes it dangerous for planes to fly.
But the knock-on to the wider economy started to emerge when the airport revealed 60 tonnes of mail and 25 tonnes of freight had also been affected.
Last night, National Air Traffic Control Services extended the ban on flights in the United Kingdom until 7am today.
Graeme Mason, head of planning and corporate affairs at Newcastle Airport, said: “Every day we are waiting for the next decision from Nats. Our staff are coming into work early so we are ready to reopen, but at the moment the situation remains the same, and no flights are departing or arriving.
“The airspace around Newcastle has been closed for a total of 96 hours. This is unprecedented in our history.”
The British Airline Pilots’ Association last night called for a banking-style rescue from Downing Street.
Its general secretary, Jim McAuslan, said: “The short-term financial impact could not be more serious for an industry already reeling from the economic downturn. A number of airlines are now staring bankruptcy in the face.
“This issue is in danger of getting out of hand.”
The British Retail Consortium warned that shoppers could see shortages of fresh foods in coming days, but said it was unlikely there would be major problems unless the eruptions continue for weeks.
However, several airlines safely flew test flights without passengers across Europe yesterday, fuelling a corporate push to end an economically devastating ban on commercial air traffic.
British Airways, KLM, Air France, Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines sent up test flights, although most travelled below the altitudes where the ash has been heavily concentrated.
The British Airways jet carried a four-man crew along with its chief executive Willie Walsh.
Lufthansa said tests on the 10 planes it sent up found “not the slightest scratch” on any of them. The results of tests on planes belonging to other airlines were still awaited last night. Meteorologists warned, however, that the situation above Europe remained unstable and constantly changing with the varying winds, and the unpredictability was compounded by the irregular eruptions from the Icelandic volcano spitting more ash into the sky.
The European air traffic control agency Eurocontrol, said it was up to national aviation authorities to decide whether to open up their airspace.
A spokeswoman said the agency’s role was to coordinate traffic once it was allowed to resume. The European Aviation Safety Agency said it was in contact with airlines and regulators with a view to allowing aircraft to begin operating again, but added there was no consensus as to what consists an acceptable level of ash in the atmosphere
Page 3 - Calls for a revival of ferry route >>
Calls for a revival of ferry route
CALLS were last night made for a ferry route to the North East to be revived after a chartered ship was used to transport stranded passengers back to the region from Norway.
The 49 frustrated travellers had been due to fly from Stavanger back to Newcastle when airlines were grounded by the volcanic eruption.
But after days of waiting they finally boarded a ferry to make the 390-mile crossing after a travel agent in Stavanger chartered the MS Gann, which docked at Port of Tyne, North Shields, at 9.15am yesterday.
The ship’s master called Port of Tyne harbour master Captain Michael Nicholson late on Friday night, asking to bring the 100-metre ship into the port.
Staff faced a frantic dash to re-open the route from Stavanger to North Shields, which has been closed for 18 months.
A total of 49 passengers, 39 sea cadets and 27 crew made the journey across the North Sea and into the Tyne yesterday. Many had been stranded in Scandinavia for several days.
The MS Gann left North Shields yesterday lunchtime, carrying 92 passengers back to Norway.
Until September 2008, there had been a direct route to Norway from North Shields by sea, but it closed because of competition from cheap airlines.
“This route has been closed for 18 months, yet it has taken only 18 hours to re-open it, even if it is for just one weekend,” said Steven Harrison, Port of Tyne chief operating officer.
“Maritime transport has not stopped because of volcanic dust and if there is a lesson to be learned from the past three days it is that it is imperative to provide a second route from the region to Norway – by sea.”
The MS Gann was formerly the MS Narvick, part of the Hurtigruten fleet of ferries serving the communities along the Norwegian coast.
Re-named the MS Gann, she has been rebuilt and is used as a winter training school for Sea Cadets and a cruise ship in the summer to help finance the running of the school.
She has 310 berths, can accommodate 40 cars and has a maximum capacity for 500 passengers.