Europe News

Europe’s Latest Game: Dodging the Cloud


There is something soothingly "democratic" about this volcanic ash cloud from that remote Icelandic volcano with the unpronounceable name.

It forced the likes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, en route back from the US, to land in Lisbon, then fly to Rome and then by bus(!) back across the Alps to Germany, where she only arrived last night and not without being stuck for a limp six hours halfway up north, as even her bus was "grounded" by a flat tire.

But Frau Merkel and Frau Wadhwa have at least one thing in common: They both managed to dodge the cloud and make it back home.

Most European Union finance ministers were stuck in Madrid after their EcoFin meeting there, as were Asian delegates for an Asia-EU Conference. Brussels called off all scheduled meetings for the day and whether it’s Berlin, London, Paris or Helskini, government PR people are scrapping schedules with flagged visits from foreign dignitaries.

EU, ECB and IMF delegations have cancelled their trip to Greece to discuss austerity packages and rescue plans.

Europe is under an utterly unexpected and unprecedented emergency regime and neither governments nor businesses really have any backup plans for this kind of event. Not that I blame them. In my (long) life as a newshound I have had to dodge many an emergency, from floods in Bengal to the Soviets in Afghanistan, but a volcanic cloud was not among them, so far.

Report from the 'Dodge the Cloud' Front

Together with a few hundred EU and Asian delegates and another few hundred reporters I was stuck in (would you believe it? rainy and cold) Madrid. Airports between Amsterdam and Frankfurt were shutting down one by one and it looked very much as if my return to Germany was not happening.

Emergency "escape" routes checked out at double speed. Trains were booked out for three days, but those travelling were likely to get stuck in yet again strike-ridden France. A drive by car seemed a daunting prospect, 2,000 miles up north, across the Pyrenees through France and halfway across Germany. Bliss! Plus, the supply of rental cars was running dry fast.

Last and slim chance at that stage was Switzerland. Zurich and the other airports were still open and looked like remaining so. I snagged the last seat on the last flight Madrid-Zurich that night. Hurrah! By the time I reached the airport, it had already been announced that Zurich, too, would shut down for business two hours after our scheduled landing there. I began to believe that we might actually fly.

We took off half an hour late, but take off we did. There was cautious optimism. Then, 20 minutes before landing, the pilot’s voice came through the intercom.

"I have bad news for you. The ash cloud reached Switzerland. Zurich airport has just been shut down."

Everybody was holding his or her breathe in the packed little Airbus.

"We will be re-directed to Basle."

Some grumbling. Some resignation. Quiet smile of relief from me. Basle was even a little closer to home than Zurich. I might even have a chance to get a last train home. And I did. Just before midnight, actually on the ICE from Basle to Frankfurt.

Forget such luxuries as seat reservations. Indeed, forget such luxuries as seats. But most passengers were beyond caring. There was a Turkish businessman en route from Istanbul to Oslo, a Finnish banker travelling from Valencia back to Helsinki, a high-ranking NATO official coming from Naples on the way back to Brussels.

And sitting on your suitcase or on the floor was still imminently preferable to being stranded wherever indefinitely.

There were other hardships. Come Freiburg, the beer ran out. Come Karlsruhe, the last bottle of wine was shared among fellow "sufferers." Before all liquidity ran dry, I had reached Frankfurt and one hour later actually home.

Others were far less fortunate. The Turkish businessman had another two days to go, the Finnish banker even a little longer and the NATO official would have made it by Saturday lunchtime.

By the way, the aforementioned NATO official was an ex-fighter pilot of 20 years experience and now high-ranking air force officer. Naturally I asked him what he thought about airport closures and flight cancellations.

"One thing we have learned is that you do not fly when volcanic ash is in the air", he declared categorically.

And what if this continues for weeks or months, I asked.

“You don’t fly in volcanic ash."

Just one opinion, but there it is.