Europe: Icelandic volcanic eruption causes huge travel chaos

An account of an epic journey from London to Moscow

The English writer, Charles Dickens, if he had written a travelogue across Europe in the past week, would maybe have started with his own words, “You see the best of people, the worst of people”. This is certainly my experience having travelled from London to Moscow last week, taking three days.

I had been in London for a meeting of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) European Bureau. Reports started coming through on Thursday morning about the Icelandic volcano eruption spreading ash through airspace and disrupting flights. But I was not too worried. My return flight was booked on Saturday and I was sure that by then, British Airways would have taken out an injunction – as they did late last year against the strike by cabin crew – to stop the volcano spewing more dust. And anyway, what could be better than spending a couple of extra days in London with CWI comrades, or maybe going to see my mum again?

But by Friday, it was clear that this was more than a few delayed flights. Flights from the whole of Britain were cancelled. The crisis was going to last some time. My problem was that I did not have a direct flight home, but was due to change in Vienna. If I gave up that ticket I would have to have paid the cost of a new return ticket from London. That is assuming if the airports had opened again.

I spent the day looking at budget airway websites in Europe, the ferry companies, Euroline and so on. Their sites and offices were so overloaded that getting useful information was practically impossible. I phoned my airline or at least I tried. Their London office was not answering. When I got through to Austria, I was assured that I would be re-booked onto the next flight, but with no guarantee it would fly. I found a report on Sea Frances site that foot passengers were being taken on to the Dover Calais ferry from £25. I was still undecided.

My airline had told me to phone back on Friday evening (my flight was due to depart at 6.00am on Saturday morning). I tried and tried but could not get through! But on the airlines site it reported that my flight was scheduled to leave on time. I had a final drink with comrades. Discovered that a minicab across London in the middle of the night would cost £50! I spent the night watching the news reports to see whether there was any possibility of my flight leaving. Decided that as NATS had extended the no fly time for at least another day to forget going to the airport and make my own way home.

No Eurostars for me. Tickets were supposedly going at 150 to 200 euros just to get to Brussels, and then were sold out two days ahead. Decided to try my luck on the Dover ferry. I caught the slow train to Dover from Stratford. It was £32 for a single ticket to travel 70 miles! For that price in Russia I can get a sleeper for the 8 hour overnight trip from Moscow to St Petersburg traveling 700 miles.

No buses

There were no buses at Dover to take passengers to the ferry terminal, which left a long stream of people walking from the station dragging their cases with them. Naturally ticket agencies were advertising ferry tickets at inflated prices. Imagine how pleased I was that when I got to the terminal there were plenty of places free but not from £25 but a nice round £45! But at least I was getting off the island.

By the time I got through customs comradeship had formed between people caught up in this travel chaos. “Anyone want to share a taxi to the station in Calais?” went up the call. Why not, I thought, thus deciding my fellow travellers for the rest of the journey. But a taxi in Calais? No chance! No buses either. Another 20 minute hike to the station. Then a train to Lille and Brussels by the evening. I thought of getting a night train across Germany? No chance! The last train from Brussels had already left.

It seems that at every stop we encountered something that demonstrated how crazy this whole system is. Ferry terminals without reliable links to the nearest railway station were just one example. At Calais station, a Sunday Telegraph reporter was looking for stories of difficult journeys. One of my fellow travelers had flown in from New Zealand and landed in Heathrow airport. Hew was bound on his way home to his family in Sweden. That was good enough for a story for the Telegraph journalist. But the reporter failed to tell readers that an available ferry was half empty. How much easier could things have been for thousands of stranded travellers if instead of searching for “exceptional” stories, the press had reported the easiest and best ways to travel? But no, the media moguls have such interests.

In Brussels, the capital of ‘civilised’ Europe, we met our first real speculators. While waiting in a queue for train tickets, we were offered a taxi to Cologne, just over the German border, 100 miles away, for 500 euros! No way! Better wait for the morning train. It was about this time that press reports began to come through of the ‘heroic’ efforts of famous British comedian and actor John Cleese’s 3800 euros taxi journey from Oslo to Brussels. Not only was this another example of how if you have money you can jump the queue, but the fact that John Cleese and other rich people like him paid such inflated prices meant that the prices were hiked for everyone else. In a sensible world, with a nationalized (and ‘internationalized’), integrated and planned transport system, taxis would be available not to those who can pay the most money but to those who need them most, particularly families with young children and the ill people.

It’s Sunday. Must be Germany! The train was jammed people sitting on suitcases and sleeping on the floors. Somehow the train conductor remained cheery and said he had been struggling with overcrowded trains for three days. But a bit of good natured banter with him and he made sure we got the cheapest possible tickets. He even gave us a coupon, usually for first class passengers, so we got a free coffee in the buffet carriage. As usual, the staff did all they could to help out passengers. On another train the conductor ignored (after a bit of friendly persuasion) passengers who had run out of money to pay for tickets.

Travellers’ solidarity

Generally, people were good humored, friendly and helping each other. But several times I heard people complain that although the airlines were supposed to cover the costs of travel, you had to pay out for the rail tickets first. This meant that many people were left stranded at airports because they just had no money. And yet the solution was painfully simple. If the transport industry was not a cut-throat competitive industry, broken down by national and sector interests and run for profit but publicly owned and democractically planned and integrated in the interests of the many, passengers unable to fly last week would have just been able to show their air tickets and be provided free travel on trains and coaches and buses.

But profit for the big corporations decides how the transport system operates. One of our early travel companions turned out to be a Ryan air pilot. He told us that as he was not a staff pilot, but contracted for individual flights, he too was stranded at an airport and left to make his own way home, while losing pay.

I stopped in Frankfurt, with an hour to wait for another train. I had a beer and something to eat and got talking to a group of lads from Ireland who were in Frankfurt for work. They were supposed to return home on Friday but now had to wait. Their boss was making them work though! Must not let a crisis like this get in the way of making money. I managed to find a telephone booth and phoned home to let them know where I was. My mobile had long stopped taking calls and messages.

I had another change in Salzburg and at last onto the final stretch to Vienna. A beautiful view of course, which you never see from the plane. By this time, all I was hoping was that now I was on the eastern edge of the no-fly zone, there would be a good chance that my flight to Moscow would take off. I spent the night with local CWI comrades. The next day I tried to get news from the airline. The airport seemed to be open and I was hopeful that I would get home to Moscow that night.

Waiting for my flight, I managed to catch up with the news. It was Monday, five days since the volcano started shooting ash into the sky. There was an emergency meeting of EU travel ministers planned. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown belatedly decided to organize an ‘emergency planning committee’ days after hundreds of thousands of people were struggling to make their way across Europe. Brown announced he would send a couple of British warships to pick up stranded British holiday makers. This was no more than a publicity stunt, intended no doubt to stir up the ‘Dunkirk/Falklands spirit’ during the British national elections. If the British government really wanted to help passengers, they would provide them with proper food vouchers, stop speculation at airports – with some stranded passengers having to pay for showers and toilet use – and commandeer fleets of coaches to transport people to the main ferry points.

Crooks and speculators

I arrived back in Moscow at 2 am on Tuesday morning. There was no way to get from the airport at that time of night except by taxi and of course drivers were demanding inflated prices. But I was not prepared to haggle. I just named my price and told drivers they could take me or leave me, as they wished. It did not take me long to find a taxi. The unfortunate driver could not understand why I was so stubborn about the cost!

My journey was arduous, to say the least. But I was still fortunate compared to many. I traveled with friendly people and had the chance to stay with CWI comrades across Europe, when necessary. My airline has said it will repay my cancelled flight costs (although they promised to send me an email telling me how, which I have not yet received). I am planning to travel to Britain on holiday, in June, with my partner and grandchild. Repeating such a journey with an 11 year old would be bad enough, but because they are not British citizens it would actually have been impossible. They both need visas to come to Britain (which cost £60 each) and separate visas to go to Europe (another £50). With no EU visa, they would have been stopped from even getting on the ferry in Dover, as I finally managed last week. We would have been stranded in the UK, until flights started again.

Many people do not understand how the visa system is used to control working people, while the crooks and speculators bribe their way past such obstacles. Arriving back in Moscow, I heard that the Russian authorities had incarcerated a group of British travelers, who were unable to fly to Europe in a Novotel and guarded by security police. But at least in Moscow they were in a decent hotel!

Now I am getting angry. I read that the air big business is complaining that it is losing up to 300 million euros a day. They do this to pressurize governments and the EU into bailing them out. The EU apparently has 4 billion euros stashed away for such crises. But what the air companies really mean is that their daily income will be down by 300 million. They do not mention the fact that they were saving huge amounts in fuel costs, landing charges and aircraft depreciation. They did not actually lose much money – they will just see their profits cut. Yet the rail, coach and ferry companies will see a big increase in profit. With an integrated transport system, run in the interests of passengers, these monies would be balanced out. But now EU politicians are suggesting that the air companies can be assisted from the contingency funds for the loss of profits. In other words, air profits will be kept up and road and rail private transport profits will increase, while literally 7 million stranded passengers will often be hundreds of pounds/euros out of pocket, if not more. The EU and other government funds should be used to bail out the travellers passengers, not the companies.

Failures of the chaotic market system

What finally made me seething with anger was seeing another TV report from the Eurostar terminal featuring a woman, with a young boy in tow, practically in tears saying how she did not know how she could get home. The train is booked days in advance. All the reporters seemed to be really interested in is the emotional state of this woman. It makes ‘good TV’. Why not inform her and many others where they can get accommodation? Why did the British government not step in by arranging coaches to take people to the ferries, so they can cross the channel to France?

During my very long journey, I heard and read versions of what had caused the volcano to blow up – from ‘theories’ about deep oil drilling and the CERN experiments, to being due to the “wrath of God” at the “behavior” of modern women. I suspect that this was a purely natural phenomenon. But the chaos and the hardship that have resulted have been solely due the crazy manner in which the world’s transport system is managed and due to the greed and indifference of Europe’s big company heads and also pro-market economy politicians. What gives me faith that this will change is the way that passengers and staff developed comradeship and were prepared to share and help one another. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in New Orleans, was an important factor in changing the consciousness of millions of Americans towards the previous Bush administration. The last week or so of travel chaos across Europe will also play a role in developing mass consciousness about the failures of the unplanned, profit-driven market system.

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April 2010