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Updated: April 19, 2010 18:44 IST

Volcano-stranded Europeans seek alternate routes

AP
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The volcano in southern Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull glacier sends ash into the air on Saturday. The Icelandic volcano that has kept much of Europe land-bound is far from finished spitting out its grit, and offered up new mini-eruptions that raise concerns about longer-term damage to world air travel and trade.
AP The volcano in southern Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull glacier sends ash into the air on Saturday. The Icelandic volcano that has kept much of Europe land-bound is far from finished spitting out its grit, and offered up new mini-eruptions that raise concerns about longer-term damage to world air travel and trade.

Frustrated European travellers stranded overseas struggled to find alternate routes home, desperate for information on flights into the continent’s few airports not closed by a dangerous cloud of ash from an Icelandic volcano.

Flights into Rome, Athens and Madrid became the new hot ticket at many international airports on Sunday — but after three days of travel disruptions, the backlog of passengers meant many faced waiting lists of days, even weeks.

“We’ll take any flight to Europe,” said Dirk Maertens, 52, slumped against a railing at Bangkok’s international airport alongside his wife and 16-year-old son.

The Maertens slept on plastic seats at the airport on Saturday night after their flight home to Belgium was cancelled. They planned to camp out again on Sunday on the off chance that seats on the already-overbooked Thai Airways flight into Rome might open up.

“When there is a flight, you have to be quick — you have to get on it, you can’t be too far away,” said Claire Maertens, 49, explaining why the family won’t leave the airport.

“It’s so strange,” she said. “One volcano, and the whole of Europe is down.”

Modern Europe has never seen such a travel disruption. Millions of passengers have had plans foiled or delayed. Around the world, anxious passengers have told stories of missed weddings, business deals and holidays because of the ominous plume, which could damage airplane engines.

Some carriers, like Australia’s Qantas, put passengers up in hotels, but many did not, offering instead only to refund tickets or exchange them for later flights.

Dubai-based Emirates airline, the Middle East’s biggest carrier, said it was losing $10 million a day, including an estimated $1 million a day just to provide hotels and meals to more than 5,000 passengers who were in transit when flights were cancelled last week.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry was organising round-the-clock consular services to arrange 72-hour visas for foreign passengers stuck at Moscow’s three airports, Transportation Minister Igor Levitin said in a televised meeting.

While some airlines in Europe resorted to temporarily laying off staff to cope with lost revenue, Asian companies tried to find ways to keep as many flights as possible running.

Thai Airways, which said the disruption was costing it 100 million baht ($3 million) per day, was encouraging passengers whose flights from Bangkok were cancelled to travel instead to airports in southern Europe that are still open. The airline scheduled extra flights to Rome and Madrid starting on Monday after indefinitely cancelling flights to nine other European destinations.

India’s Jet Airways rerouted its flights to New York and Toronto via Athens. It was not servicing its routes to London or Brussels, according to airline official A.K. Sivanandan.

Qantas said on Sunday that it would continue an abbreviated flight schedule on Monday and Tuesday, allowing flights that would normally go from Australia to Europe via Asian cities to run — but only as far as the Asian stops.

The airline, however, warned passengers not to fly to Asia simply to wait for their connecting European flights to open. But about 1,500 Qantas customers were stuck in Singapore, Bangkok and Hong Kong, spokeswoman Emma Kearns said on Sunday. Another 400 international customers were stranded in Australia, she said.

Travellers stranded in New York said it’s nerve-wracking not to know when they can go home. Most of the budget-minded tourists having Sunday breakfast at the Chelsea International Hostel in Manhattan were waiting to learn when travel restrictions would be lifted.

Lyndsey Janes and her husband, Martin, hadn’t planned to be in New York at all. They were heading to London after three weeks in Costa Rica when their four-hour stopover at Newark Liberty Airport in New Jersey turned into an indefinite wait.

“It’s every day, just waiting,” Ms. Janes said.

Mr. Janes was considering buying a new laptop so he could work, but first they were going shopping for shoes; having planned for Costa Rica, the Janeses had only flip-flops.

Many travellers said the most frustrating part was the lack of information.

In Bangkok, British business manager Chris Coomber stood in a long line at the Emirates counter. He and his wife have been stranded in Thailand since Friday, and they’ve been told the first flight available isn’t until April 29.

“It hasn’t been handled well by the airlines,” said Coomber, 53, a business development manager from Bournemouth, England. He complained the airline had only one computer and staff member at its information counter, while empty check-in stations were still staffed.

“It’s a natural phenomenon. There’s not much you can do about it,” he said of the volcano. “But I feel badly about how it’s been organized, the lack of information and the way the airlines have treated the people who can’t get back home.”

His schoolteacher wife, Barbara, was eager to get back to her class — a substitute will cost her school £250 ($385) a day, she fretted. But she was more understanding of the airport confusion.

“It’s never happened before,” she said. “So of course, no one knows how to cope.”

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