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Volcanic ash continues to disrupt Europe flights

Across the continent, fliers scramble to find alternatives. Residents near airports enjoy a welcome calm, a return to a time before the infernal roar of jet engines.

April 16, 2010|By Henry Chu
  • Passengers use camp beds as they wait for the resumption of flights Friday at the Frankfurt airport, the biggest in Germany. Flights there were halted indefinitely as a high-altitude cloud of volcanic ash from Iceland spread farther over Europe. Elsewhere in Germany, flights were grounded at Berlin, Cologne, Duesseldorf, Hamburg and Hanover, among other airports.
Passengers use camp beds as they wait for the resumption of flights Friday… (Torsten Silz AFP / Getty…)

Reporting from London — To the thousands of glum and despairing passengers marooned across Europe on Friday by an unforeseen act of God, it may have seemed like a page from "Paradise Lost."

"Me miserable!" John Milton wrote 350 years ago. ". . . Which way I fly is hell."

Many had grappled with the tribulations of bad weather, veteran fliers for whom snow and rain held no mystery. But a volcano spewing fire and ash from the bowels of Earth? Hell didn't seem too far-fetched a metaphor.

For all of its highways, ferries and passenger trains that still stop at every little town, Europe was absorbing a lesson in how much it depends on aviation.

Airports normally seething with activity were ghost towns. Those hoping for a train from London to the Continent were greeted by a sign telling them: Don't bother unless you already have a ticket in hand.

Discount carrier Ryanair, a favorite for quick getaways or bachelor parties half a continent away, suspended flights from Britain until Monday.

Yet as the unlucky brooded over missed weddings and conferences, or how to reach the bedside of a sick relative, for others there was a sense of paradise regained, a return to a time before the infernal roar of jet engines and the smell of aviation fuel.

"It's gloriously peaceful. I could hear the birds singing . . . even through the double-glazed windows," exulted 63-year-old Loraine Martin.

An office administrator, Martin lives under the flight path of London's Heathrow airport, one of the world's busiest travel hubs. Every couple of minutes or so on a normal day, the scream of planes taking off or landing shatters the calm of her neighborhood.

Not so Friday. The cabin crews, check-in agents and concessionaires all stayed home. The grounding of the fleets offered her a rare chance to reconnect luxuriantly with loved ones.

"Normally I can't talk on the phone when the planes are coming in," she said. "But now I can have long conversations."

Eurocontrol, a continent-wide aviation agency, said it expected only about 12,000 flights to operate Friday; the usual number is 28,000. More disruptions were likely Saturday.

"When you observe the size of the volcanic ash cloud, you can well imagine that it is very difficult for any significant movement of air traffic in the northern part of Europe to take place," said Brian Flynn, a Eurocontrol manager.

In many ways, it was as if a large swath of Europe had returned to a simpler age, before man conquered the skies. Only birds took wing over most of Britain, Scandinavia, northern France, Belgium, the Netherlands and parts of Germany.

Here in Britain, one commentator likened it to stepping back into the 19th century, an earthbound age when trains (and Queen Victoria) ruled.

Or perhaps it was Mother Nature offering a reminder of who's still really in charge, swatting away human pretension of defying gravity and ruling the air.

"That's always the hubris," said writer Jamie Berger, "followed by nemesis," which in this case is a volcano that goes by the name Eyjafjallajokull.

Berger joined more than 50 people in line at St. Pancras train station in London, hoping to find some way of getting to the European mainland now that his air ticket to Amsterdam was useless. His father lay in a Dutch hospital bed, suffering from a pulmonary embolism, and Berger was desperate to get to him, by train through the Channel tunnel, by ferry, by whatever means.

But this, too, seemed futile. The Eurostar rail service to the European mainland posted a sign at the station saying trains were fully booked, and that customer service windows would not even be staffed.

"There is a last-chopper-out-of-Saigon aspect to all of this," Berger said.

By some cosmic coincidence -- or not -- this is the second time that Berger, 42, has managed to have his travel plans disrupted by volcanic activity. In 1991, when Mt. Pinatubo blew in the Philippines, Berger was forced to cancel a plane ticket to the Southeast Asian nation from Hong Kong.

If there was any consolation to be had Friday, it might have been that this volcano was democratic in its fallout.

In Scandinavia, Norway and Sweden had to do without some of their top leaders.

Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg was stranded Thursday in the United States, where he had gone to attend an international nuclear summit hosted by President Obama.

But pictures of Stoltenberg playing with his new toy from Apple Inc. littered the Internet, and a government spokeswoman told CNN, "Jens Stoltenberg is controlling the Norwegian government from his new iPad."

Carl Bildt, Sweden's foreign minister, fished around Thursday for ways to get home from London after his flight to Stockholm was grounded. He managed to board a Eurostar train to Brussels, then went overland to Germany, where he blogged Friday from the ferry taking him across to Denmark.

"Nothing is so bad that it isn't good for something -- a trip through the beautiful Netherlands," Bildt wrote.

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