Air travel chaos: £500m liner sails to the rescue of Britons

INAUGURAL celebrations on a new £500-million cruise ship were put on hold so it could head to Spain to pick up British tourists stranded by air delays caused by volcanic ash.

The 122,000-tonne Celebrity Eclipse, which boasts its own lawn, is due to leave Southampton tonight en route to Bilbao.

The luxury vessel was to be in port before a two-day launch cruise on Thursday, but the crisis caused by the Iceland volcanic eruption changed plans.

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It is thought that tour operators requested the voyage to pick up about 2,000 stranded Britons. Even though British airspace is likely to be open, the backlog will take days to get through.

Eclipse, which can carry 2,850 passengers, will make the journey and return to Southampton late on Friday.

A spokeswoman said the sailing would replace the activities planned during the two-night, round-trip launch celebration cruise from Southampton.

Some of the delayed holidaymakers have been stranded for up to seven days and many were on package holidays with major UK tour operators.

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.

"Collecting stranded British and Irish holidaymakers is a fitting first mission for new ship Celebrity Eclipse.

"We hope that guests initially invited to join the launch celebrations on 22 April will understand the change of plan."