Frustrated airline passengers faced a third day of disruption today as Northern Ireland was deemed a no-fly zone once again.
Overnight, National Air Traffic Services (NATS) re-applied restrictions grounding all non-emergency aircraft into and out of Northern Ireland after conditions caused by the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud worsened.
Passengers were offered a glimmer of hope when a few flights between Belfast and Glasgow were allowed to go ahead last night. But following a review of the latest information from the Met Office, Nats announced this morning it was closing UK airspace until at least 1am tomorrow.
According to Nats the ash cloud, which contains particles of rock and glass that could cause aircraft engines to shut down, is “moving around and changing shape”.
If it “moves sufficiently” some airspace may become available between Northern Ireland and Scotland, however a Nats spokesman warned travellers not to raise their hopes.
“We will be coordinating this closely with airlines and airports,” he said.
“It is most unlikely that many flights will operate today and anyone hoping to travel should contact their airline before travelling to the airport.”
News of a third and possible fourth day of disruption will pile even more misery on thousands of frustrated holidaymakers stranded at home and abroad.
Some of the UK’s biggest airlines including British Airways have cancelled all flights for today while others such as Ryanair have taken a more drastic approach and grounded everything until Monday lunchtime, at the earliest.
However even if the airspace is re-opened this evening, travellers are likely to face massive delays as the knock on effect from cancellations causes severe disruption for days to come.
More than 65,000 people using Northern Ireland’s three airports have been affected since Nats took the decision to halt all non-emergency flights into UK airspace after the Mount Eyjafjallajoekull eruption.
At Belfast International, around 400 flights have been grounded affecting almost 50,000 passengers.
Airport spokesman Uel Hoey urged customers to be patient when the skies eventually re-open.
“Obviously it will take a little time to clear up the backlog but we, as the airport, are very much at the end of the line,” he said.
“Nats and the Met office must deem that the circumstances are safe to operate the flights.
“We are keeping a very close review of the situation and our confirmed advice is for travellers to keep a close view of the airline websites before making their journey to the airport.”
At the George Best Belfast City Airport all flights were halted with the exception of the Manx2 service to the Isle of Man because smaller propeller aircraft can fly at a lower altitude below the plume of volcanic ash. Yesterday only 12 flights were operated, compared to the usual 130.
Over the next 24 to 36 hours, prevailing winds will shift slightly to drive the central part of the plume towards Scandinavia.
However, the wind direction is expected to shift over the weekend and could bring the particles of glass and rock back over the UK.
Travellers are still being urged to check with their airlines before setting off on their journey.
This morning Aer Lingus confirmed that it had cancelled all UK, European and transatlantic flights.
Easyjet said it did not know when it would be able to resume normal service, while Jet2.com has laid on additional flights for tomorrow and Monday.
Flybe had hoped to lay on ‘lifeline’ aircraft from Belfast City Airport to accommodate those who have had flights cancelled but these too, have been put on hold.
Meanwhile, record numbers of people flocked to ports in an effort to get to their destination.
Norfolkline, which can accommodate 900 passengers between Belfast and Liverpool has been working round the clock to meet demand while Stena Line had 2,500 extra passengers yesterday.
Last night Stena Line’s Ian Baillie said: “Yesterday we experienced a huge surge in demand with all sailings full.
“Today is no different with customers booking online, through our call centre, or directly at the terminal. We are doing everything we can to accommodate all passengers. Sailings are booking up fast so we would urge people still needing to confirm their travel plans to do so as soon as possible.”