Inaugural celebrations on a brand new £500m cruise ship have been put on hold so it can head to Spain to pick up British tourists stranded by air delays caused by volcanic ash.
The 122,000-tonne Celebrity Eclipse, which boasts its own lawn, is due to leave Southampton this evening en route to Bilbao.
The luxury vessel was to be in port before a two-day launch cruise on Thursday, but the crisis caused by the Iceland volcanic eruption changed plans.
It is thought that tour operators requested the voyage to pick up around 2,000 stranded Britons desperate to get home.
Even if British airspace opens, the backlog will take days to get through.
Eclipse, which can carry 2,850 passengers, will make the journey and get back to Southampton late on Friday.
The ship will arrive in Southampton as scheduled at 9am today and will depart in the evening. She is scheduled to arrive in Bilbao in the early hours of April 22.
Stranded holidaymakers will embark throughout the morning and Eclipse will return to Southampton, arriving late on Friday evening.
A spokeswoman said the sailing would replace the activities planned during the two-night, round-trip launch celebration cruise from Southampton.
Apart from the real lawn measuring nearly half an acre, the ship has the usual facilities including bars, 10 restaurants, a casino, a theatre and swimming and spa pools.
Prices for a 14-night Spanish Mediterranean cruise onboard the Celebrity Eclipse start from £1,479 per person, based on a July 24 2010 departure.
Meanwhile, Europe’s skies will be split into three zones as long as the volcanic ash fallout lasts, under a deal being hammered out by EU transport ministers last night.
And, in the wake of criticism that a virtual blanket ban on flying is too vague and unnecessary, there is provisional agreement on establishing “no fly”, “restricted” and “fly” zones based on detailed assessments overseen by Eurocontrol.
The move came as some European countries were already acting unilaterally to open up parts of their national airspace as the perceived threat from volcanic ash receded.
However, the eruption of a new ash cloud last night means the UK plans to lift restrictions have been scaled back.
The EU deal was seen as clarifying existing confusion over the scale of the current flight ban by setting out criteria for justifying easing restrictions.
EU transport Commissioner Siim Kallas insisted that whatever measures were taken would be on the basis of the scientific evidence about continuing impact of the erupting volcano and with passenger safety as the top consideration.
Mr Kallas said the meeting made “real progress” and insisted the Commission was continuing to assess the situation on the basis of passenger |safety and passenger rights, while considering the economic consequences for the industry.
The European Commission's Director-General for Mobility and Transport, Matthias Reute, pointed out that in America, airlines would be advised to steer clear of volcano eruptions, but left to assess risk themselves, rather than leave the decisions to national authorities on the basis of mathematical calculations, as in Europe.
The option of establishing a long-term EU system in which airlines would make the final decision on whether to fly, is likely to be considered later this year.
Meanwhile, the government has called in the Navy after Prime Minister Gordon Brown chaired a meeting of Cobra, the emergency planning committee.
There are plans for three warships to help with the rescue effort. HMS Albion, an amphibious landing ship, was already on its way to Santander in northern Spain to pick up soldiers returning from Afghanistan and will now be available to take civilian passengers as well.
HMS Ark Royal and HMS Ocean, aircraft and helicopter carriers, are on their way down to Continental waters.
Some passengers have complained that they had received little consular assistance.
Other passengers also contacted the Air Transport User's Council, complaining that |airlines were refusing to meet the terms of EU legislation requiring them to pay for hotel and living expenses for passengers whose flights had been cancelled.
And airlines, whose shares have slumped, have appealed for government compensation to help them recover from the unprecedented shutdown.