As Iceland volcano ash lingers over Europe, stranded travelers' patience wanes

Planes across most of Western Europe were grounded for a fourth day Sunday as a cloud of ash from last week's Iceland volcano continues to hang in the air above. Stranded travelers are losing time, money – and patience.

Arturo Rodriguez/AP
Passengers rest as they wait for a flight at Barajas Airport, in Madrid, Spain, on Sunday. Barajas remained open but Spain's airport authority has closed 12 airports as the ash cloud emerging from an Icelandic volcano reaches the north of the country.

The massive, meandering clouds of ash from last week's Iceland volcano continued to blanket wide swaths of Europe's air space for a fourth day Sunday, bringing the total number of flights canceled since Thursday to well over 63,000.

For some airlines, that's an estimated loss of more than $200 million a day.

European Union transport ministers will examine the results of weekend test flights by empty airliners on Monday and consider how soon the skies might be back open for business.

It may still be days, which is bad news for any business heavily reliant on air freight and for anyone trying to travel to, from, or through Europe. But for the tens of thousands of stranded travelers, it may be even worse.

The novelty of their predicament – "Volcanic ash?! No way!!" – wears off fast. As does the whole “we are all in this together” thing.

Long lines, long faces, and lots of Muzak

What you are left with is masses of frustrated travelers stranded around the globe – their movement thwarted by a volcano named Eyjafjallajokull – searching for alternative routes, standing in long lines, shelling out money they do not want to spend on food and hotels, and listening endlessly to Muzak on their cellphones, on hold for an airline representative.

The billboards at Heathrow, the airport with more international travelers than any in the world, said it all: Madrid: Cancelled. Dallas/Ft Worth: Cancelled. Istanbul: Cancelled. Hong Kong: Cancelled. Toronto: Cancelled. Sydney via Singapore: Cancelled.

And Costa Rica? Yes, yes, those flights are canceled, too.

“The information is not changing much,” says a tired Kim McIntyre, a veterinarian from Washington with a big wheelie bag.

Most travelers, advised of the situation, had left Britain’s airports, but those who were unclear about what was going on, or who had no money to go anywhere else, or who were simply desperate – milled around for a third day Saturday, lugging suitcases from here to there and back, and hoping the bizarre turn of events that messed up their plans would reverse itself and become right as suddenly as it had gone all wrong.

Some were stressed because they needed to get back to their offices.

Others were stressed because this had been their opportunity to get away from their offices.

Some had weddings to attend. Others, funerals.

Couples were arguing. Babies were crying. Siblings were punching each other. Airline representatives were, it would seem, by and large AWOL.

'Not ideal'

The whole thing, as was put in typically English understatement by William and Gloria Rogers – who were headed to New Zealand for their long awaited retirement trip – was “not ideal.”

“We considered a terror attack, but this – Oh no, this is too much,” Mr. Rogers said.

Tent cities

Where there any bright spots? Anything learned? Any random acts of kindness and neighborliness to shore up one’s faith in human nature during times of trouble?

Well, two Dutch guys with tents and camping gear heading to a trek in Nepal got friendly with two American contractors, on their way home to Florida after a year in Afghanistan. The contractors also had tents and the little group got together and set up a tent city near the Marks and Spencer mini store in Terminal 3.

“Nice tents,” remarked Tony Dorgan, a Turkish farmer stuck on his way to Izmir, where he was returning to take care of his 7000 olive trees. “Tell me stories from Afghanistan,” he requested, and ordered a pizza special to share with the group.

Abdulla Alhajr, from Dammam, Saudi Arabia, wandered by and eyed the tents enviously. Trying to get home after three months at English language school in Bournemouth, he had been sleeping on the floor near the deserted Virgin Information desk with his five friends since Thursday. “I wish we had tents. We just have towels,” he sighed.

Mr. Alhajr and his friends think the whole volcanic ash thing is, but of course, a conspiracy.

“This is a ploy by the British to get foreigners to spend more money in the country,” he explained to Maria Seller, a Canadian who runs the shoe department at Sears in Edmonton, Alberta and was trying to get home after a holiday in Romania, and Gracella Rodriguez, an elderly Spanish woman, stranded after coming up to London for a one day cardiologist appointment.

The three discussed which airline’s representatives were worse at picking up the phones – Air Canada, Saudi Airlines, or Iberia.

Dorgan puts in a word for Cyprus-Turkish airlines. William and Gloria suggest Qantas. The American contractors show everyone photos of their kids on their Iphones.

Red Bull to the rescue?

Into this mix come the Red Bull girls -- as the drinks company, never ones to let a little volcanic ash temper their promotional spirit, has sent over an army of good looking young women, many of whom seemed to be called Poppy and Georgie, to Terminals 1, 2, and 3 with coolers. The Saudis raise their eyebrows.

The contractors snap some more photos.

A veritable global village.

From Edinburgh to Oslo, by car – and train

Over at Saint Pancras International rail station in central London, meanwhile, thousands of travelers who thought to leave Britain by train waited patiently on incredibly long lines to try and buy Eurorail tickets which would get them to Paris or Brussels from which – well, it was not immediately clear where they would go from there.

“From Brussels, I will get a taxi to this rental car office where I have managed to book a car in Antwerp, and from there, drive to Oslo” explained a flustered Diana Miller who had already hitchhiked from Edinburgh to London and was not really sure how long it might take to drive from Antwerp to her hometown of Oslo (an approximately 1500 kilometer trip)

“Do I like to drive?” she ponders. “No, not at all.”

Even the best of schemes sometimes led to exactly nowhere.

For, despite all the extra trains – Eurorail added on eight high- speed trains Saturday – many would-be passengers could not get a seat.

“All Euro star services are fully booked,” repeated the voice over the loudspeakers. “It is currently not possible to buy or exchange a ticket ... All Euro star services are fully booked....”

“Let's go get some sliced pineapple,” suggests stranded traveler Roland Didier, a baseball player from France with a tote bag.

“Sliced pineapple?” his friends don’t understand.

“Do you have any better ideas for the moment?” he counters.

These are random times, and pineapples it is.

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