Airlines could get £2bn ash pay-outs... and the taxpayer will pick up the bill
By Ray Massey and Paul Sims
Last updated at 8:16 AM on 28th April 2010
Airlines could share in a £ 2billion taxpayer-funded compensation bonanza in the wake of the volcanic ash chaos which turned Europe into a six-day no-fly zone.
The European Union has agreed to allow state help for airlines which have complained bitterly that the flight ban has cost them millions.
They will be offered emergency loans and allowed to postpone payments of charges.
Up to 35,000 British passengers are still stranded in Asia, Africa, America and Australia.
According to estimates, 13,000 are waiting to get back from the U.S. while a further 10,000 are in Egypt, 2,500 in Thailand and 2,000 in Malaysia.
The remaning 7,500 are scattered around the globe.
Many have run out of cash and are living under blankets in airports. Others have borrowed from family and friends to pay for hotels.
Their anger about the continued delay in returning home has intensified as it was claimed that some planes are flying back to the UK half empty while airlines jack up seat prices to more than £2,500.
But last night British Airways rejected accusations of ‘ profiteering’, saying the inflated fares were a ‘technical’ device to ensure the seats remain unbooked and available to stranded passengers.
These passengers do not have to pay any extra for their flight home but have to wait for a seat to be allocated when they are given a ‘rebooking date’.
BA denied it was letting planes fly half empty.
'We have been doing everything we can to ensure that aircraft are full when they depart for the UK,’ said a spokesman.
‘However there have been instances where customers who held bookings for flights either cancelled their bookings at short notice or did not turn up.
'Those customers had paid normal fares, and we do not know why they decided not to travel. ‘
Our advice to customers who want to return sooner than their rebooking date is to keep checking on ba.com, contact British Airways directly or your travel agent to see if an earlier option has become available.’
The state aid compensation package to airlines was pledged yesterday by European Union Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas.
But it will be individual governments – and their taxpayers – who will be picking up the tab.
Airlines have been furious that under EU rules they are obliged to pay for accommodation and meals for their stranded passengers.
They complain that the nervous reaction of safety quangos such as Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority was to blame for the flying ban and spiralling costs.
More than 30 aircraft, including jumbo jets and helicopters, have reported incidents linked to the Icelandic volcano since the flying ban was lifted last week.
These include a ‘smell of sulphur’ or evidence of volcanic ash, but the CAA stressed last night that there was no damage to any aircraft.
Under new rules introduced last Tuesday, airlines must by law report any traces of ash and whether any damage has been caused.
Still stranded in Disneyland
For Richard Burton and his family, their £5,000 holiday of a lifetime at Disneyworld in Florida has turned into a nightmare.
Long after the flights ban was lifted they remain stranded and are now borrowing money from relatives in the UK just to survive.
They have not been given any vouchers by their airline, Virgin Atlantic, being told instead to claim back their expenses once they returned.
So far, they have spent £1,000 on food and £1,500 on phone bills trying to organise flights home.
Their hotel cost has been met by Virgin. Mr Burton, 42, from Clacton, Essex, travelled to Orlando with his children Tom, 13, and Lucy, 11, his partner Victoria Manning, 41, and her 15-year-old son Reece.
They were due to fly home ten days ago, on April 18, but their flight was cancelled.
Since then they have attended daily meetings with airline representatives in the hope that they will at last be repatriated.
Each day they, and dozens of others, have been told that flights will become available within 24 hours, only to find that they are full.
Mr Burton, who runs his own home improvements business, said: ‘We are living off money put into our bank accounts by relatives back home in the UK. At the same time I’m not earning, so this may bankrupt me.’