Britain Sends Warships To Aid Stranded Travelers

Britain's Royal Navy has sent warships to continental Europe to rescue Britons stranded by the volcanic ash cloud. Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and two other Royal Navy ships would cross the English Channel as far as Spain. European transport officials agreed on Monday to gradually resume air traffic in designated "caution zones," where the threat of ash is considered less dangerous.

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Amid the travel chaos in Europe, there was some temporary relief insight for travelers this evening: There will be a limited number of flights from some European airports tomorrow. But it's too soon to celebrate. British officials warned that a growing plume of volcanic ash was on its way from Iceland.

In the meantime, the British prime minister said that Royal Navy warships would be sent across the English Channel to collect some of the Britons stranded in continental Europe. NPR's Rob Gifford reports from London.

ROB GIFFORD: Day five of the crisis and the tempers of not just the stranded passengers but also the airline executives have started to fray. Over the weekend, a number of large airlines, such as British Airways and Lufthansa, had flown planes through areas affected by the cloud of ash and all had returned safely. Airline officials who have been walking the fine line between reassuring passengers on safety and feeling the huge hole being burned in their pockets spoke openly today about how slow the European coordination had been.

Anthony Concil is from the trade body for the world's airlines, the International Air Transport Organization.

Mr. ANTHONY CONCIL (International Air Transport Organization): It's taken Europe's transport ministers five days to organize a teleconference in order to discuss the seriousness of this issue. In the meantime, the airlines are losing, at a conservative estimate, $200 million a day and there's probably billions in business that has been lost as a result of people's inability to move around.

What we would propose is that our governments use actual testing of the atmosphere to determine which areas of the airspace are safe and which areas are not and allow airlines to fly in those areas in which there is no issue.

GIFFORD: But scientists have rejected criticism of the methods they've been using to assess the danger. Derrick Ryall is a particle scientist at the British Meteorological Office who defended their use of scientific modeling and practical observation.

Dr. DERRICK RYALL (Particle Scientist, British Meteorological Office): We have a number of instruments, such as lydals(ph). These are lasers that effectively point up and then reflect off particles in clouds, and they're giving very clear indications of ash up there. So, that's giving us some confidence about where it is and when. There's also direct measurements of the surface and there's also been a research plane that's been deployed over the last night, which has detected ash in several levels. So, the sorts of observations we're getting are consistent with the sorts of predictions we're making.

GIFFORD: Meanwhile, the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, had stepped in with a grand gesture announcing that three Royal Navy ships would be sent to help rescue the tens of thousands of British people still stranded across the English Channel. Brown said efforts were being made to fly British people from farther afield back to Europe through Spain.

Prime Minister GORDON BROWN (United Kingdom): We have large numbers of travelers who are caught in Asia and in America, and the main route home that is available at the moment is through the airports that are open in Europe, and that is in Spain. I've talked to Prime Minister Zapatero. He has offered in principle the use of Spanish airports as a hub for bringing people back to Britain. And we are now looking at whether we can make the arrangements that are necessary, transport arrangements that we will support as a government, at coach, ferry and train to get people from either Madrid or a Spanish airport back to Britain.

GIFFORD: This afternoon, the British government said airports in Scotland and northern England are due to open tomorrow morning. European transport ministers came out of their teleconference saying that restrictions would also be loosened in European airspace, which will be divided in three: a core no-fly area would be retained, another area would open to all flights, and there'd be a third caution zone where airliners can fly under close supervision.

Everyone warned it will not yet be business as usual, and just as some optimism was creeping in late this evening, another British statement said a new plume of ash was again heading south and east towards Britain from Iceland, making tomorrow's situation impossible to predict.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.

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