A sea rescue operation to recover Britons stranded by the volcanic ash was in full swing today.
Three of the Royal Navy’s largest ships were hoping to recover Britons left in foreign climes by the airspace ban.
And inaugural celebrations on the 122,000-tonne Celebrity Eclipse cruise ship were also put on hold so she could head to Spain to pick up tourists.
The brand new £500-million ship is due to leave Southampton tonight en route to Bilbao.
The luxury vessel was to be in port before a two-day launch cruise starting on Thursday but the crisis caused by the Iceland volcanic eruption changed plans
It is thought that tour operators requested the voyage to pick up around 2,000 stranded Britons desperate to get home.
Even though British airspace is looks likely to open this week, the backlog will take days to get through.
Some of the delayed holidaymakers have been unable to get back to Britain for up to seven days and many were on package holidays with major UK tour operators.
Eclipse, which can carry 2,850 passengers, will make the journey and get back to Southampton late on Friday.
The ship will arrive in Southampton as scheduled at 9am today and will depart in the evening. She is scheduled to arrive in Bilbao in the early hours of April 22.
A spokeswoman said the sailing would replace the activities planned during the two-night, round-trip launch celebration cruise from Southampton.
The naming celebrations for the ship are planned to go ahead unchanged, and Celebrity Eclipse will be named by Hampshire yachtswoman and breast cancer survivor Emma Pontin on April 24.
The cruise line said it was working to accommodate guests who were scheduled to join the two-night launch sailing and it would contact all affected guests directly.
Richard Fain, chairman of Celebrity Cruises, said: ‘The events affecting air travel are completely unprecedented, and it is in times like these that the global travel industry needs to pull together.’
Meanwhile, HMS Ark Royal, HMS Ocean and HMS Albion were today due to bring travellers, including soldiers returning from Afghanistan, back to the UK from the Continent.
The ships were steaming to ports in mainland Europe to pick up people whose flights were cancelled because of the ash cloud.
Aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, the Navy’s flagship, based in Portsmouth, was carrying out operations off north-west Scotland when it was redeployed, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said.
Commando helicopter carrier HMS Ocean, the Navy’s biggest ship, left Devonport Naval Base in Plymouth yesterday on a routine training exercise before being tasked with helping to recover the stranded travellers.
HMS Albion, an amphibious landing ship also based at Devonport, was already on its way to Santander in northern Spain to pick up soldiers from 3rd Battalion The Rifles, who are returning home after a gruelling six-month tour in Afghanistan.
An MoD spokesman said: ‘The Ministry of Defence is looking at how a number of Royal Navy vessels could provide support to UK Government efforts to assist British travellers stranded abroad and wishing to return home to the UK.
‘We are urgently looking into the detail of how this support will work in practice but as part of the preparations we are looking at how the Royal Navy will be employed to provide assistance to the Government’s wider efforts.’
It is not the first time the UK mounted a seaborne operation to rescue stranded Britons.
Hundreds of small boats helped the Navy to evacuate more than 300,000 Allied troops from around Dunkirk in northern France in May and June 1940 after they were cut off by German forces.
In July 2006, UK warships, including the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious and the commando assault ship HMS Bulwark, were involved in rescuing about 4,400 people, including more than 2,500 British nationals, from Lebanon during the war between Hezbollah and Israel.