$5,500 Cab Ride? Volcanic Ash Strands Thousands at Airport, Even Grounds Jet Set

Volcanic ash strands thousands at airport cots, foreign cities.

April 16, 2010, 2:07 PM

April 16, 2010— -- Even the jet set is grounded as European airports wait for dangerous ash spewed from an Iceland volcano to subside.

Ordinary travelers by and large are being forced to sit and wait at shut-down airports, but one celebrity paid $5,500 for a 15-hour cab ride, another was forced onto a boat and others may not be able to make it to huge U.S. gigs.

Monty Python comedian John Cleese spent roughly $5,500 on a taxi ride from Oslo to Brussels after getting stranded by the volcano. The 930-mile trip was expected to take him more than 15 hours. Cleese hired three drivers who apparently were taking turns at the wheel, according to Norwegian media reports.

"We checked every option, but there were no boats and no train tickets available," Cleese told Norwegian TV2. "That's when my fabulous assistant determined the easiest thing would be to take a taxi."

Singer Whitney Houston took to the seas to make it to Dublin for the next stop in her world tour. The singer and her entourage ended up on a 3 hour, 15 minute car ferry across the Irish Sea from Holyhead, Wales to Dublin.

Halfway around the world, other music fans were not so lucky. Several bands scheduled to play at California's Coachella Music and Arts Festival this weekend had to back out because of canceled flights.

The Cribs, Los Campesinos!, Gary Numan and Bad Lieutenant were among the acts that have struggled to make it to the California venue.

From Turkey, to Russia to even parts of Asia, travelers are stuck with no relief in sight. Passengers frantically are trying any method possible to get home, to a business meeting or just to start their vacation.

Most of them have not met success and are left stranded in random cities, some being forced to spend the night on emergency airport cots in places from London to Paris to major U.S. air hubs to Europe.

"We're right in the middle of crisis central," said Heather Dolstra of Democracy Travel in Washington, D.C. Dolstra and other agents have been feverishly working to get their customers to their destinations any way possible.

"It's just as bad, in many ways, as anything we saw on 9/11," she said. "All of the rerouting is impossible."

The airports in Europe are some of the world's busiest connection points. A passenger going from Africa or India to the United States, for instance, is likely to change planes in London, Paris, Frankfurt or Amsterdam. All of those hubs, and numerous smaller airports, have been closed thanks to volcanic ash in the skies above that can cause airplane engines to lose power and fail.

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The volcano hasn't stopped everybody from doing their jobs though.

Norway's prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, was photographed in a British Airways lounge at New York's JFK Airport using the latest Apple product. The headline in the New York tabloids summed it up this way: "He governs via iPad."

Stoltenberg finally made it to Munich on a plane Thursday night and then took a train home.

In Boston, organizers of the city's marathon, scheduled for Monday, extended the traditional Sunday night check-in deadline and may even allow day-of-race check-in because many runners are stranded overseas.

Thousands of Fliers Stranded

On Friday, roughly 17,000 flights scheduled to fly through European airspace were canceled as well as 300 or so others between Europe and North America, according to the European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation, which handles air traffic control for the continent.

(Many took to the rails, but Eurostar said that all 46,000 seats on its 58 trains Friday between London and Paris and Brussels were sold out.)

Todd Brilliant from Healdsburg, Calif., wrote on a Facebook group called: "When Volcanoes Erupt, Survival Guide for Stranded Travelers" about he and his wife's struggles to get home.

"My wife and I are in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England. A rather lovely little town where Shakespeare was born and died. And the funny thing is, if we don't get out of here in a week, it's where our baby will be born," he wrote. "You see, Andrea is 31 weeks pregnant -- and the airlines don't allow pregnant women to travel after 32 weeks. Cargo ships take many weeks…"

Travelers are venting their frustration on Twitter and other social media sites.

"Stuck in Dubai because of the Icelandic volcano. Flight tomorrow morning cancelled. Rebooked for 11 days time. This REALLY sucks," one Tweeted.

"Heartbroken," another traveler wrote. "Our flight to Spain is canceled indefinitely. No hope on the horizon. Stupid volcano."

At Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, the Dutch Red Cross set up 1,500 emergency beds. At Frankfurt Airport, 1,000 cots were set out. Countless other travelers rushed to grab whatever hotel rooms they could. According to Dutch media, one airport hotel that normally charges 60 euros ($81) a night was reported to be charging 200 euros.

But at least there travelers could leave the airport. A group of 200 Bangladeshis in Brussels were not so lucky.

Their flight to London Thursday was diverted to Brussels. Shortly after landing, Belgian airspace was also shut down. But unlike other travelers stuck in Brussels, the 200 or so Bangladeshis were not able to leave part of the airport because they lack Belgian travel visas.

Airlines aren't required to do much, if anything, for the stranded passengers. Since this event is an "act of God" the United States Department of Transportation does not require airlines here to provide any compensation, food or lodging.

It's slightly different in Europe. In a situation like this, carriers are not required to provide monetary compensation, but under European Union laws, airlines need to provide such things as food and lodging, "as appropriate." This applies to passengers stranded in Europe, even those flying on U.S. airlines.

According to American Airlines, the "as appropriate" makes it a gray area, and their take on this is they are providing some snacks for passengers, but no meals and lodging. British Airways, however, is putting up some passengers in hotels and handing out meal vouchers to stranded travelers in both the U.S. and Europe.

Blake Feetwood, who owns five Cook Travel agencies around New York, said he has dozens of passengers stranded in various airports.

His team worked through the night to get five architects out of Mumbai. They were supposed to fly back to New York via London.

"My agent was up all night trying to reroute them to come via the Pacific," Feetwood said. "The other route takes about three or four hours longer but if you have a death cloud out there, you have to go the other way."

Now they are flying Mumbai to Bangkok to Tokyo to New York thanks to an agent who spent the night searching for tickets.

"My agent was just sitting there watching the computer, as seats opened up, grabbing them," he said.

But the most heart-wrenching story might be of an American couple heading to Namibia for a month-long cruise on Regent Seven Seas. When they connected through London, the husband was denied boarding because his passport did not have enough pages left for immigration to stamp. His wife continued on to Africa and he got the extra pages added to his passport. But once he was ready to fly again, the airport was shut down because of the ash cloud.

The couple from Hawaii had purchased trip insurance. Karla Turzinski, from Travel Guard's 24-hour help center, was one of the people to help the stranded passengers.

"He was anxious obviously to get out," Turzinski said. "He was ready to get on his way."

He was still waiting late Friday.

She said the phones haven't stopped ringing and the company has brought in extra staff to help with the volume.

"People want to go home, get on with their trips," Turzinski said. "The phones are quite busy."

For Dolstra, the Washington, D.C., travel agent, the real frustration is that nobody knows when this will end.

The last time the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland exploded, 187 years ago, the eruptions went on for more than a year.

"For us to assume this is a one-time plume is optimistic as best," Dolstra said. "That's the other shoe to be dropped."

With reports from ABC News' Lisa Stark

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