Airports across Britain looked like ghost towns on Thursday as, in an unprecedented move, British airspace was completely sealed and not a single flight was allowed either to take off or land anywhere, including military airstrips, because of safety fears after a volcanic eruption in Iceland set off a massive cloud of ash drifting towards the U.K.
There were fears that tiny particles of glass, rock and sand contained in the ash could cause aircraft engines to jam.
Flights were also disrupted in several other European countries, including France, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark, but Britain was the worst-affected because of the direction of the wind with thick plumes of ash moving south from Iceland and enveloping the sky.
Tens of thousands of people had their travel plans disrupted and it was not certain when normal flights would be resumed. Airlines were flooded with inquiries from anxious passengers who complained that they were not getting any clear information.
Confusion prevailed as several long-haul flights took off earlier than their scheduled departure time to avoid the imminent closure of airspace leaving hundreds of passengers stranded. Election campaign was also hit as senior political leaders were forced to change their travel plans.
Heathrow and Gatwick, among the world’s busiest airports, wore a deserted look while rail and coach stations were overwhelmed with extra demand as domestic travellers switched to trains and coaches. Eurostar reported an extra 10,000 bookings.
The lockdown, described as the most serious since the Second World War, started shortly before noon and was originally expected to be lifted at 6 p.m. (local time) but later in the day it was announced that it would continue at least until 7 a.m. on Friday. Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologised to the people but said safety was the “predominant consideration” behind the decision to close the airspace.
The National Air Traffic Services (Nats) said the restrictions were unlikely to be lifted even on Friday as it was “very unlikely that the situation over England will improve in the foreseeable future”. The authorities were being extra-cautious because in 1982 a British Airways jet had a miracle escape after all its engines jammed as it flew through a plume of volcanic ash.