Peter Mandelson: 'We need to get people home' Government plan to bring back 200,000 stranded Britons will involve Navy if crisis worsens Dan Milmo and Polly Curtis guardian.co.uk, Sunday 18 April 2010 21.08 BST Article history Tessa Jowell, David Miliband, Peter Mandelson, Lord Adonis and Lord West address the media after an emergency meeting at No 10. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images The government tonight launched an unprecedented plan to bring home an estimated 200,000 people stranded abroad by the volcanic ash cloud including possible deployment of the Royal Navy as European airlines staged a series of successful test flights and urged governments to reassess flying restrictions. In a move rarely seen during a general election, Gordon Brown recalled senior cabinet members from the campaign trail to tackle the aviation crisis. On the steps of Downing Street the business secretary, Lord Mandelson, flanked by the foreign secretary, David Miliband, transport secretary, Lord Adonis, cabinet minister Tessa Jowell and security minister Lord West, unveiled a plan to repatriate UK residents. Government sources said around 200,000 Britons were in temporary exile, according to unofficial airline estimates. The government measures include: Deploying the Royal Navy, cruise ships and commercial shipping to transport passengers to the UK if the crisis worsens. Using Spain, which is not yet affected by the eruption, as a dropping-off point for stranded air passengers before continuing their journey by train, coach or boat. Adonis meeting with all EU transport ministers via video-conference to consider the scientific evidence for establishing safe flight corridors through the ash. British consulate officials visiting key airports worldwide to advise passengers of their rights, including food and accommodation from EU-registered carriers. Mandelson said: "We need to look at every single logistical option for getting our people back home." Gordon Brown chaired tonight's meeting at No 10, which was also attended by representatives from the Met Office and the chief scientific adviser, Prof John Beddington, to co-ordinate a response. A meeting of the emergency committee, Cobra, will follow tomorrow. The Tories set out their own eight-point plan to bring people home, including similar measures to use commercial ships and navy frigates to transport travellers and seek out the best scientific advice possible to establish when it is safe to fly again. As the closure of British airspace enters its fifth day, the scale of the financial impact on the airline industry was becoming clear amid warnings that daily losses of $200m (£130m) could soon become unsustainable without state intervention. Ryanair, Europe's largest short-haul carrier, cancelled all flights in northern Europe until Wednesday afternoon with BA and BMI scrapping schedules for tomorrow after Nats, the national air traffic controller, maintained a no-fly zone until at least 7pm tomorrow evening. BA's chief executive, Willie Walsh, flew on a test flight aboard a BA jumbo jet over Ireland tonight amid mounting pressure from airlines for a partial lifting of restrictions. The two hour 46 minute flight left Heathrow tonight climbed to 40,000 feet and remained at that level for an hour before returning to Cardiff where it will undergo a full technical analysis at BA's engineering base. A government source warned that the disruption is expected to last into the middle of the week at least, with 20 European countries imposing airspace closures as persistent weather trends continue to blow ash from Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano across the continent. Thousands of Britons are also blocked from leaving the UK because of the closure of airspace; Eurostar and ferries are fully booked for the immediate future. Thousands of children due back in school today after the holidays will be absent from their desks. Airlines across Europe are urging aviation authorities to reconsider the flying ban after high-altitude test flights by French, German and Dutch national carriers showed no impact from the ash cloud shrouding Europe. Nats and the Met Office are co-operating with airlines over reinstating services. The British Air Transport Association, whose members include BA, Virgin Atlantic and BMI, warned that a grounded airline industry is growing frustrated with politicians as it haemorrhages more than £100m a day. "The government needs to help us get back into the air again," said Roger Wiltshire, Bata secretary general. The Association of European Airlines and Airports Council International also accused authorities of over-reacting. "The procedures applied in other parts of the world for volcanic eruptions do not appear to require the kind of restrictions that are presently being imposed in Europe," said the AEA and ACI. Air industry experts warned that some carriers could be forced out of business. Even before the eruption, the International Air Transport Association (Iata) had predicted that the global airline industry would lose $2.8bn this year. "It is possible that some carriers could go under. Most airlines are still losing money and it is only airlines with deep pockets that can withstand this," said John Strickland, an industry consultant. Britain's main carriers BA, Ryanair and easyJet have a combined cash balance of nearly £4bn and are among the carriers with the best chances of surviving a prolonged no-fly period. Britain's largest pilots' union, the British Airline Pilots' Association, urged the government to step in to prevent an industry collapse. "A number of airlines are now staring bankruptcy in the face and if their aircraft are subsequently grounded tens of thousands of people will be marooned abroad," it said. Brown ruled out a state bailout but said the government would seek an EU rescue for British airlines threatened with collapse. He said the EU solidarity fund, a £1bn annual fund granted to member states that are victims of a natural disaster, could be used by carriers. The prime minister also warned that any attempts by rail or ferry companies to profiteer from people's desperation would be unacceptable. "I'd be shocked, if out of this difficulty that has happened because of the circumstances of a volcano in Iceland, people try to make extra profits out of it," he told BBC's Andrew Marr Show. The test flights this weekend bring hope that some limited flying might be permitted, despite fears that the ash, carrying tiny particles of rock and glass, will cause catastrophic engine failures in mid-air. The Dutch carrier KLM said it had flown aircraft without passengers through a window in the volcanic ash cloud and reported no engine damage. It said European airspace was safe and announced plans to operate freight services tonight, with the possibility of passenger flights tomorrow.