Return of the ashes?

In this photo taken on Saturday, May 21, 2011,  smoke plumes from the Grimsvotn volcano, which lies under the Vatnajokull glacier, about 120 miles, (200 kilometers) east of the capital, Rejkjavik, which began erupting Saturday for the first time since 2004.  Iceland closed its main international airport and canceled domestic flights Sunday as a powerful volcanic eruption sent a plume of ash, smoke and steam 12 miles (20 kilometers) into the air. (AP Photo, Jon Gustafsson) ICELAND OUT

In this photo taken on Saturday, May 21, 2011, smoke plumes from the Grimsvotn volcano, which lies under the Vatnajokull glacier, about 120 miles, (200 kilometers) east of the capital, Rejkjavik, which began erupting Saturday for the first time since 2004. Iceland closed its main international airport and canceled domestic flights Sunday as a powerful volcanic eruption sent a plume of ash, smoke and steam 12 miles (20 kilometers) into the air. (AP Photo, Jon Gustafsson) ICELAND OUT

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For one local travel agent it’s “one of the worse possible scenarios” – as yet another volcanic ash cloud threatens to scupper travel plans, just as confidence began to return to the international travel market.

With flights already grounded at some UK airports, high street travel agents report calls from concerned travellers, with many turning up in person at Fylde coast branches.

The spokesman for one North Fylde travel agent said: “It’s early days yet. The message is simple – don’t panic. The experts are convinced this volcano will not be as bad as the last.

“Airline operators are far better equipped to cope. They are more aware of conditions on site, know the safety factors. It’s generally accepted, they erred on the side of over caution last time.”

But she concedes the latest situation may undermine public confidence in foreign travel – with some already deterred by tougher security in place at airports since the death of Osama Bin Laden.

“If nothing else, it will benefit stay at home business,” she added,

“We’ve had one cancellation because the couple concerned went through all this last year and were stranded in Italy. “They got home by train as the lady had an important hospital appointment. They’re in their 70s and say it’s hard to get insurance cover for pre-existing medical conditions without throwing an ash cloud into the equation. They have now booked a Shearings coach break to Scotland.”

Staff and pupils from Fylde coast schools, along with tourists and business workers, were among thousands stranded in the fallout from the Icelandic volcano crisis last year.

Marton couple Anna Johnson and Peter Jones saw their dream wedding in Barbados grounded and spent six months chasing compensation as insurers passed it off as an “unforeseen event.

“We got most of our money back in the end, and got married in the Lake District instead,” says Anna. “All you have to cope with there is rain!”

Bispham geology student Peter Collins, stranded in Austria after a walking holiday last year, abandoned his insurance claim – with the volcano ruled an act of God by the company concerned. “I rationalised it was costing me more to pursue it than the extra accommodation and rearranged flight cost.” Some Blackpool FC fans missed out on the team’s big day at Wembley because they couldn’t fly home in time. Others, such as grandparents Fred and Mary Jane Cunningham, taking their two grandchildren to Benidorm, waited hours for their flights, while incoming passengers were directed to Newcastle, and bussed back to the Fylde coast.

Consumer rights experts at Which? now warn many insurers specifically exclude ash cloud events. They urge holidaymakers to check the cover in place to determine whether refunds will be offered in the event of cancellations.

A spokesman adds: “If your flight is cancelled or delayed for more than five hours, you should be offered a choice of a full refund or transfer to an alternative flight.

“However, airlines don’t have to compensate passengers for loss of additional elements, such as accommodation and car hire.”

Last year, around 100 teaching staff were unable to return to the classroom, with teachers at Rossall School sending study packs abroad to 80 of their boarding students. Lucia Frankitt, co-proprietor of San Marcos Restaurant on Lytham Road, had to cope without 11 of her staff who were stranded abroad.

At Blackpool International Airport, which remained open through last year’s crisis, staff say airline schedules are expected to operate as planned for the “foreseeable future” following the disruption experienced after the volcanic ash cloud affected parts of UK airspace this week.

Communications manager Sue Kendrick advises all passengers to attend the airport as normal, adding “Blackpool International will continue to monitor the situation with latest information from the Met Office, the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) and NATS (National Air Traffic Services).

“Safety is of paramount importance.”

Blackpool Airport’s website is regularly updated, but airport director Paul Rankin advises passengers to check with their airlines. “That’s the first port of call. As far as we are concerned Blackpool is unaffected. We are guided by advice from the CAA and Met Office. It is a different situation from the previous one, the density of the cloud, and the weather, are in our favour at the moment.”

While specialist airline network website analysts claim passenger numbers at Blackpool fell by 40 per cent in April, 2010, Manx2’s routes saw an increase in passengers locally as it was able to operate, at times, by flying at lower altitude. The Blackpool route saw a 3.7 per cent rise in passengers in April, 2010.

The eruption of Iceland’s Grimsvotn volcano, on Saturday, was the first since 2004, when a much less powerful eruption lasted several days, and briefly disrupted international flights.

The latest, the largest in 100 years, sent a plume 12 miles high, but because the ash is coarser it falls to earth faster, and is deemed less dangerous to jet engines than the finer sharper particles cast by Eyjafjallajökull last year

Dozens of planes were grounded at UK airports yesterday including Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Barra, Prestwick, Cumbernauld, Londonderry, Tiree, Carlisle and Durham Tees Valley.

Thankfully, Nats today said harmful concentrations of ash were expected to have dispersed overnight although the Met Office said ash might return to affect much of the country on Friday.