BRITAIN’S airline industry is facing a fresh set of threats this week as aviation authorities prepare to close a number of airports ahead of a new and highly dense ash cloud which is expected to drift across the UK.

Last night Heathrow, Gatwick and City airports were closed from 1am until at least 7am today.

The Met Office said yesterday that the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland continued to send an ash plume 25,000 ft into the air, and expects winds to carry the cloud south over the UK.

Germany and the UK sent two atmospheric research planes into the affected area yesterday and concluded after tests that “one should not fly into this”.

The National Air Traffic Service (NATS), which has already come under criticism by a raft of commercial carriers, issued flight bans for regional airports including Manchester and Birmingham yesterday afternoon and evening, causing disruptions to short haul flights.

NATS said that it expected to re-open the airports from 1am this morning.

The news is a blow to the airline industry, which has been hit the hardest by the ash cloud, and yesterday it struck back at the authorities. Virgin Atlantic boss Sir Richard Branson called the move by authorities to shut the regional airspace “beyond a joke”.

His sentiment was echoed by a number of other commercial carriers, including rival British Airways (BA), which insisted that airlines should have the power to decide when to fly and not the authorities.

News of the flight ban comes as BA faces the first of 20 strike days tomorrow.

BA is currently inching closer to an agreement with union Unite over the possible threat of the lengthy industrial action by cabin crew as both sides meet today with the government to attempt to strike up a deal.

Transport secretary Philip Hammond is to meet separately with leaders from both parties today to try and get their points of view, despite a tentative agreement reached by BA and Unite over the original costs dispute.

Members from BA and Unite will also meet today at the conciliation service Acas as they try to sort a deal on staff travel perks and disciplinary actions taken by BA, said to now be at the heart of the bitter argument.

Hammond called the proposed walkout bad news for passengers and staff and said that a prolonged series of strikes will only weaken BA’s business and put jobs at risk.

Unite joint general secretary Tony Woodley said the two had reached an agreement on pay, working practices and staffing levels in principle.

However, he called BA’s refusal to fully reinstate cabin crew with full travel perks and the suspension and sacking of 50 cabin crew “vindictive”.

He claimed yesterday that “settling this dispute now would not cost BA a single penny. But it cannot be settled if the threats, intimidation and petty vindictive action continues.”

Despite the recent advancements, BA will go ahead with plans to seek a High Court injunction to legally prevent the walk out from taking place.

The last strike cost BA £45m.