SCOTLAND was last night handling some of the only flights in northern Europe as the Icelandic volcano ash cloud forced a continued unprecedented shutdown of the Continent's largest airports.
• An Icelandair plane from Reykjavik lands at Glasgow airport yesterday
There were no signs of a let-up to the chaos, with Transport Secretary Lord Adonis warning that significant air disruption would continue until at least tomorrow.
Seven British Airways flights from the United States and Canada are due to land in Scotland today, with others likely to follow if English airports stay closed.
First Minister Alex Salmond said Scotland offered a "window of opportunity" for flights to be diverted from elsewhere, easing congestion across the Western world.
However, the first European flights into the UK since the most far-reaching restrictions in aviation history were imposed on Thursday were three planes from Iceland's main airport, which has remained open despite the eruption.
• Is the flight ban really needed?
Some 600 passengers aboard the Icelandair aircraft, which touched down last night in Glasgow from Reykjavik, included schoolchildren on trips who had been stranded.
National Air Traffic Control Services (Nats) reopened Scottish airspace under its control yesterday, as the huge ash cloud was estimated to be costing airlines across the world 129 million a day.
However, Nats last night further extended the ban on passenger flights over England and Wales until 1pm today, and this may be extended again at 9am. The restriction has been in place south of the Border since noon on Thursday. The widespread disruption is expected to continue to cause chaos for passengers for days after flying restrictions are lifted, because of the backlog of flights and aircraft being in the wrong place.
Ryanair, Europe's largest airline, last night cancelled all its UK and northern European flights until Monday to reduce uncertainty.
Chief executive Michael O'Leary said he hoped it would prevent affected passengers being rebooked on flights that also subsequently had to be cancelled.
Accountants Deloitte said the cost to British and Irish airlines alone was up to 28m a day. Aviation manager Neil Morris said: "The big concern is if there is further volcanic activity and the wind continues to blow in the direction of the UK.
"Following one of the worst years for financial performance the aviation industry has ever seen, a prolonged period of losses for an industry that is already in a difficult financial position could have serious repercussions."
Eurocontrol, which co-ordinates air traffic control across Europe, said fewer than half of the Continent's flights operated yesterday – 12,000 of 28,000. Only a third of the normal 300 transatlantic services to Europe flew.
Europe's main hubs, where passengers change planes, remained closed, including Heathrow – the world's largest – and Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Copenhagen. Airspace was also restricted in Belgium, Poland, the Czech Republic and most of Scandinavia.
By contrast, some 1,500 transatlantic passengers are due to flood through Scotland's airports today, including three British Airways Boeing 747 jumbo jets landing at Glasgow from New York and San Francisco.
Prestwick will host BA flights from New York and Los Angeles, with a BA service from Calgary in Canada due in Aberdeen – which could be its first-ever transatlantic diversion.
Passengers will be taken by coach to London, where the planes were due to have landed, with the aircraft flying straight back across the Atlantic empty to pick up more delayed travellers. BA normally only flies between Scotland and London, having axed its transatlantic services from Glasgow more than a decade ago.
Three Gatwick-bound Thomson Airways aircraft were diverted to Glasgow yesterday, from Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Florida, while a flight to Barbados was among those departing from the airport last night.
Flights between Glasgow and the Western Isles, Belfast and Dublin also resumed.
Services are due to restart today from Scottish mainland airports and the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland and the Isle of Man. North Sea flights are also expected to resume after being halted for the first time. Continental Airlines' flights from New York to Edinburgh and Glasgow were due to operate, too.
Nats said last night there were no airspace restrictions in Scotland, Northern Ireland and over an area of the North Sea, including Shetland and Orkney.
A spokesman said flights might also be able to resume temporarily at airports in northern England, including Manchester and Liverpool, from 4-10am today.
However, these would only be for flights to and from the north, and would be "subject to individual co-ordination."
The spokesman also warned: "Please be advised the situation is continuously changing. Forecasts indicate that the ash cloud is expected to return over northern England at 10am, and it is likely that restrictions will be reintroduced.
"Please note these arrangements do not mean that all flights will operate. Anyone hoping to travel should contact their airline before going to the airport.
"We are looking for opportunities when the ash cloud moves sufficiently for us to enable some flights to operate under individual co-ordination with air traffic control.
"We will review further Met Office information, and at 9am we will advise on further arrangements."
A spokesman for airport operator BAA said: "Some flights within Scotland and between our Scottish airports (Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh] and North America and Ireland are currently operating, but we strongly advise passengers to check the status of their flight with the relevant airline before travelling to the airport."
In Scotland, emergency flights included a Coastguard helicopter which flew through the volcanic ash to airlift to hospital a woman who had taken an overdose in Orkney.
Cross-Border train and coach operators plan to run extra services into next week, with Virgin Trains putting on 2,000 extra seats yesterday and East Coast also running more trains. Network Rail cancelled engineering work to help out.
The Royal Mail said post normally carried to and from Scotland by air was being transferred to road and rail, along with items for Europe, but mail for the rest of the world was being held up.
Those caught in the disruption included the Duchess of Cornwall, who was unable to travel from Scotland to sign a book of condolence for the late Polish president Lech Kaczynski at a Polish cultural centre in London.
Hundreds of soldiers from the Royal Regiment of Scotland, whose return to Edinburgh from Afghanistan has been delayed, are expected back today.
• Travellers urged to check insurance small print
• Countries and their airspaces affected by Iceland's volcanic cloud