Agents dealing with the fallout of the six-day shutdown of UK airspace due to the volcanic ash cloud were plunged into cash flow troubles as bookings came to a virtual standstill.

Anecdotal evidence suggests short-term bookings dried up last Thursday as consumers waited to see if air restrictions would be lifted. Agents said even if enquiries came in, they were too busy dealing with the disruption to take them.

Abta chairman John McEwan admitted that the bookings lull would cause serious cash flow problems.

“Cash flow is a key issue. Short-term bookings have been hit. Some forward bookings are coming in but that doesn’t help cash flow.”

TTA member Lee Harrison, owner of Select World Travel, said: “We do not get paid for all of our hard work unless the client actually travels.

“Due to the uncertainty of being stranded, all of our clients due to travel in the past week asked to cancel, but they have said they will re-book at a later stage.”

Large operators have also seen a drop in bookings.

Alun Williams, e-commerce director at Tui Travel, which said the crisis had cost it £20 million up to Sunday and a further £6 million each day after that, said: “We have seen late bookings affected. We were expecting a buoyant summer but the longer the disruption goes on that could have a knock-on effect.”

However, industry bosses were confident the market would recover now airports had opened for business again.

Steve Byrne, Travel Counsellors managing director, said bookings for the summer and Christmas were still coming in. He said: “Before this happened we were 20% up on last year for summer. I’m sure the market will come back.”

Most airlines began flying again on Wednesday after restrictions were lifted, but it is expected to take about a week for services to return to normal. Airlines’ initial focus was on repatriating the 200,000 British holidaymakers stranded abroad.

On Wednesday, a British Airways spokesman said it would be “several days” until all flights would operate, because many aircraft and crew were out of place.

Virgin Atlantic said it was working on getting back to a full schedule in a few days.

Thomas Cook and Tui Travel were both hoping to start outbound services on Thursday.

Cosmos managing director Stuart Jackson said it was hoped normal service would resume “within days,” but admitted there was still a long way to go. Five empty Monarch flights left the UK on Wednesday to bring customers home.