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Ash Monday

By Tom Hall   20 April 2010 7:54am Europe/London

Eruption of Eyjafjallajökull Volcano, Iceland April 17 by NASA Goddard Photo and Video.

Ash Monday – and Friday, Saturday, Sunday and for a bit longer yet, it seems.

Not every day begins at 6.15am with the phone ringing and a researcher saying ‘There’s a cloud of volcanic dust heading for Britain! Will you come on TV and explain what it means for air travellers?’ I won’t forget last Friday in a hurry then, but things have got much worse for travellers from then.

There were two very different, yet predictable responses to flights being delayed. Those who could, who were on the European continent or could get there easily, made their way home by any means available: train, bus, ferry and the new business class: expensively chartered car and, if you lived in the UK, waiting speedboat. With wonderful Spring weather across western Europe it felt, for some, like a tremendous wheeze. Tweet #lpash for colourful fun and games from an army of adventurous travellers. Thanks to everyone who’s written to contribute stories – I have a few to share over the coming days which I’ll post here.

For those on the wrong side of the world, or the Atlantic Ocean, getting home has been impossible. Travel can be less fun when you’re supposed to be somewhere else, and the last few days will have been torturous for many. Happily we appear to be edging closer to a resumption of services, meaning those with children, or a long way from home can begin a delayed trip back. For many there is an additional anxious wait for a rescheduled flight. Anyone in this position should stay close to their airline or travel company and also keep their ear to the ground for alternatives.

I’ve been lucky enough to watch this playing out in the company of TV and radio news programmes in this country who’ve been keen to get Lonely Planet’s perspective on it. My job in these circumstances is to put the traveller’s point of view, offer context and perspective and, where possible, some practical advice. I spent most of Monday afternoon on a grassy knoll overlooking Heathrow Airport where, I could confirm, there were no flights going anywhere. It was an aerophobe’s dream come true. You could even hear the birds singing.

What now then? Firstly, the next few days should see airports across Europe return to normal. There’ll immediately be some further disturbance as planes get to where they need to be, and then even more as airlines work out how to get the stranded back while getting those who may have had confirmed seats on flights months in advance to where they, not unreasonably, can expect to be carried. Once the dust has settled airlines will be working out how to recoup lost revenue and raises in fares and dreaded ancillary charges on baggage and other services cannot be ruled out. Ryanair might not be the only airline associating the removal of urine with making money, if you catch my drift. Airlines will also be using the incident to highlight iniquities in passenger compensation rules and push for them to be changed.

These however are conversations for another time. If the past few days have been an adventure and something you’ll always remember then, in a roundabout way, you’ve probably got what you left home for in the first place. If it’s all been a nightmare you’re still trying to escape from then you have our sympathies. Do let me know how you’re getting on. If the advice here doesn’t help, feel free to contact me using the form at the bottom of this page.

[Image courtesy NASA Goddard Photo & Video]