Mission impossible: Escape from Europe

VIENNA (AP) — Stranded travelers are piling into buses, trains and high-priced taxis in a frantic scramble to accomplish an increasingly tricky mission: Escape from Europe.

Spain was becoming a dream destination not for its beaches and monuments but simply by virtue of the fact it's one of the few European countries unaffected by the ash cloud drifting across the continent from an Icelandic volcano.

Monstrous lines filled the departure terminals at Madrid's Bajaras Airport as people sought a chance to flee — and tempers were fraying.

"I am on the standby list and I am homeless right now," said Roberta Marder, 73, from Tulsa, Oklahoma. "I am here fighting in the line and trying to get a ticket."

Many people arrived with stories of grueling road trips to get to Madrid.

Doug Hahn, 36, from Portland, Oregon, was settling into his seat Thursday on a New York-bound plane in Amsterdam when the flight was canceled. He and three other stranded travelers rented a car and drove to Madrid — a 16-hour road journey.

The price? Six hundred euros ($808), split three ways — a "good deal" for Hahn, who said the car company initially wanted 1,600 euros ($2,155) for the one-way rental. He managed to get a ticket for a Miami flight later in the day.

On Monday, Spain offered to let Britain and other European countries use its airports as stopovers to get tens of thousands of passengers stranded by the volcanic ash traveling again.

With flying conditions uncertain, only a fraction of the continent's airports were operating. Eurocontrol, the continental air authority said airlines in Europe were expected to fly only between 8,000 and 9,000 of their 28,000 scheduled flights on Monday — mostly from southern Europe.

A German rental agency on Sunday was asking more than 1,000 euros — close to $1,400 — for a car one-way from Belgrade, Serbia, to Munich, while another firm demanded 1,850 euros ($2,500) for a Madrid to Brussels rental. In Stockholm, Magnus Klintback, a spokesman for the Swedish firm Taxi Kurir, said about 50 clients had willingly paid prices of up to 34,000 kronor — nearly $5,000 — to different European destinations from which they had a chance to fly home.

Legions of other travelers were simply stranded.

At Frankfurt Airport, one of continental Europe's biggest hubs, airport spokesman Uwe Witzel said that almost 500 passengers — most of them from Africa or Asia with no visas for the EU — were spending their fourth day in the transit area.

Witzel said the stranded were being provided with three meals a day, showers and fresh clothing as needed.

"We've set up an Internet lounge, we've hired people to entertain the kids and we've also arranged a spot outside the terminal building where people can go to get a breath of fresh air and some sun," he said.

In Austria, authorities lifted flight bans early Monday, buoying travelers' spirits. Officials said that approximately 65 flights had left by noon.

But most were within Europe. Austrian Airline officials said the only two transcontinental flights possible later in the day were to Beijing and Bangkok.

Attinchat Apirukkunwong won't be on either.

"I am still patient now, but probably not for much longer," said the Bangkok native, his face strained by the fatigues of a European vacation gone awry. He said he was hoping for a flight back home via a Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul.

For Greg Moncada, flying was a professional imperative — he had scheduled job interviews on the U.S. West Coast.

"I'm trying to get to Seattle," said Moncada, high school principal at Vienna's American International School. "I have to be there tomorrow."

In Italy, many travelers to Milan's Furniture Show, which ended Monday, were also stuck — and trying to make the best of it.

"I think the plan is to play while New York is asleep. We give them three hours of work, then we eat and drink into the evening," said Jonathan Friedlander, U.S.-based marketing manager for an Italian furniture brand, referring to the time difference between the two continents. Friedlander was supposed to leave Sunday, but now is booked out with his colleagues on Friday.

Tongue firmly in cheek, Friedlander said there are so many design industry types from the United States stranded in Milan that they are toying with developing an iPhone ap called "Stuck in Milan."

"It would tell everyone where everyone is. It can help with escape routes, say if people are renting cars to go to another city."

The ash also caused diplomatic headaches.

President Barack Obama was forced to miss the Polish president's weekend funeral, while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called off a scheduled trip to Finland.

The no-fly zone that was most of Europe also forced the postponement of a visit to Russia by a team of U.S. officials who were to discuss Russian concerns about adoptions. U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the team had made it as far as Toronto before its flight to Moscow was canceled.

At the same time, senior European officials were unable to make it to a Sunday and Monday conference in Washington of major economies on climate change, Crowley said. Those who could not attend either participated by video link or were represented by lower-level officials.

Crowley said the U.S. State Department had instructed diplomats from U.S. embassies and consulates in Europe to check on "key airports" to see if there are any stranded American citizens who might need assistance. He could not say yet which airports were visited or if any Americans had requested help.

Iceland's volcanic ash cloud also delayed bailout talks in Athens on Monday regarding Greece's economy, leaving the country to watch its borrowing costs hit another record high. The crisis negotiations with the International Monetary Fund and the European Union will now start Wednesday and could be held by teleconference if planes remain grounded after that.

Stranded Europeans trying to get home were also affected.

At Incheon International Airport in South Korea, about 30 frustrated passengers blocked a Korean Air ticketing counter and demanded a meeting with company officials to arrange travel to anywhere in Europe after they heard an Air France jet flew from the airport to the French city of Bordeaux.

They held up a makeshift sign saying, "We want to come back home," each word written on a separate piece of paper and held by an individual traveler.

"We need a flight, we need a time," Thierry Loison, who has been stuck since Friday at Incheon on the way back to France after a vacation in Bali, told Korean Air officials. "We were like animals this morning."

Passengers resting on blankets spread on the floor of a business center complained about the lack of hotel accommodations. They said they were only receiving a voucher for one meal a day at McDonald's and that they were running out of money.

Chloe Paull, a teaching assistant at a secondary school in England on her way home after a trip to Japan during school break, was supposed to be back at work Monday. She has been stuck in South Korea since Saturday and said Air France is sending her back to Japan, where she's booked onto a Wednesday flight back home.

"The problem is it might not be open so I can just be stuck in Japan, same as here" she said with a laugh.

Being stranded is becoming a financial burden, she said.

"My job isn't highly paid and I spent a lot of money in Japan," she said. "It's an expensive place."


Associated Press writers throughout Europe, the United States and Asia contributed to this report.