21st Mar 2023

MEPs side with stranded passengers as air traffic resumes

Members of the European Parliament on Tuesday voiced their concern over the millions of stranded air passengers all across the world due to the volcanic ash cloud over Europe that saw more than 95,000 flights cancelled in the last five days.

"We have to look at the human dimension of this crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people are stranded, waiting to get back home. Some people are stuck at the four corners of the earth, they possibly ran out of cash and they have to take care of themselves for a further amount of time," said Martin Schulz, the leader of the Socialist group in the European Parliament, during a special debate dedicated to the air traffic chaos caused by a cloud of volcanic ash floating over Europe.

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  • The volcano has its own Facebook page and Twitter account (Photo: Orvaratli)

An estimated seven million passengers have been affected by the five-day disruption of almost all flights via Europe, with the bloc's co-ordinating air traffic body, Eurocontrol, saying that 95,000 flights have been cancelled so far since the Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted in Iceland last week, producing a massive ash cloud that stretches across Europe and all the way to Canada and Russia.

Despite continued volcanic activity, air traffic resumed timidly on Tuesday, with flights starting to move in and out of major hubs such as Frankfurt, Amsterdam, and Paris. But around half of the daily European air traffic of 28,000 flights were still grounded, especially in Britain, Ireland, the Scandinavian countries and Germany.

One of the MEPs who made it to Strasbourg, Hannes Swoboda, a social democrat from Austria, said he travelled by car and train from Belgrade to Vienna and then to the French city, but was appalled by the rail conditions.

"I can see that in border regions, the motorways link in quite nicely, but for trains, things are still pretty grim. The toilets on the train were completely blocked because so many people were on the train, the corridors were full of passengers sitting on the floor because there were not enough seats. It was pretty disastrous," Mr Swoboda.

Several other euro-deputies stressed the need to reinforce rail connections, especially for high-speed trains and pointed to the fact that often one cannot book a train ticket for travel across multiple countries.

As for the stranded passengers, the representative of the Spanish EU presidency, Diego Lopez Garrido said: "Member states have to facilitate repatriation, it is a basic right to return home and the principle of free movement has to be upheld."

The UK has started using military ships and is sending busses to Spain to repatriate its stranded travellers while Germany has started to fly in 15,000 of its holidaymakers stuck abroad.

Passenger rights, ranging from free meals and accommodation to re-imbursement and re-routing options, have to be respected even in these extraordinary circumstances, EU transport commissioner Siim Kallas stressed.

Still, Irish centre-right MEP Gay Mitchell lambasted both the European Commission and the national governments for not putting enough pressure on airport and train station authorities to properly inform and care for passengers.

"This exchange is far too polite. People are being treated like dirt in train stations and by authorities in airports. We should be using our power in the European Council and the commission to force these people to open information," he said angrily.

Low cost airlines are particularly loathed by their customers for the poor service. James Ward, a British passenger stranded in Bratislava with his wife and two kids was notified by SMS that their Ryanair flight got cancelled. "There was no sorry, no advice, no nothing," he told this website.

Mr Ward will rent a car and spend nearly €2000 in order to get home, after Ryanair informed him that the first available plane is set to take off next Monday (26 April).

Volcano on Facebook

Accounts from various airports and unusual trips back have been pouring on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

One British woman in her 33rd week of pregnancy is stranded in Singapore after her flight to London was cancelled. "I only have a window of up to three weeks and then airlines won't fly me. Our airline, Qantas, has rebooked us on the earliest flight available at this stage, 6 May, cutting it a bit fine," she wrote.

Brides-to-be missing their wedding, workers worried about getting fired for "overstaying" their holiday and people with medical conditions running out of their medicine are also posting their accounts online.

The Icelandic volcano, which now has its own Facebook page and Twitter account, seems unimpressed, however, and continues to spit lava through the thick glacier.

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