Ray Suarez: Life Under a Cloud

BY Ray Suarez  April 17, 2010 at 9:16 AM EDT

LONDON | Another day. Another clear blue sky.

And another cancelled flight because of what’s lurking above that clear blue sky. I was just about to write this post, about the airport closings, the delays, the crammed ferry landings, the snaking lines through train stations … and an e-mail came from a colleague:
“My Sunday flight already cancelled. Presumably yours too?”

I had just checked maybe 20 minutes earlier and everything, according to (insert major American-based transatlantic carrier here) was still a go. But now, as the e-mail indicated, I no longer had a way to go home.

When I walked to the front door with my bags on Tuesday night, on my way to attend the Skoll World Forum in Oxford (Skoll helps fund NewsHour reporting on social entrepreneurship), I assured my 10-year-old daughter that I would be back before she had time to miss me. I was scheduled to be home for a late dinner on Friday night … in the next 72 hours she’d be asleep for about 30, in school for 18, at music lessons for 2 … then I would be home!

So, here I sit after a morning stroll in bright London sunshine for a paper and some breakfast, in a laughably tiny hotel room, very much wanting to go home. It wasn’t so long ago that I would have gladly welcomed an unscheduled sojourn in one of my favorite cities in the world. An extra three days in London? All right! But right now I would like nothing better than to get to a gate at Heathrow, find a jet sitting at the end of the walkway, and a tower happy to let us take off.

Yesterday, I was with a Newshour team at St. Pancras train station, once a grimy late-Victorian pile whose best days were long behind it. Today “St. Pancras International” is rehabbed, scrubbed, sparkling, and one of the main embarkation points for the cross- channel rail service connecting London to Brussels, Paris, and Amsterdam. Accustomed to competing against jet service to the Continent, the Eurostar trains were happily getting used to being one of the only games in town.

The people I spoke to, waiting in a very long line to reach a ticket or check-in window, were philosophical, patient, and so far, not suffering too terribly from having to spend some extra days in London. One businessman from Norway smiled and said, “A one-day business meeting in the UK has become a week’s holiday in London. It’s OK.” In the early days of any situation like this one, good humor prevails. I mean, who are you going to get mad at … the volcano? But that forbearance does have an expiration date, and it could arrive with the new business week if European skies are still home to just the birds.

Estimates of mounting costs are running at about $200 million a day for carriers flying in and out of Europe. Now that speculation is beginning that flights may be delayed or grounded into the middle of the coming week, we’re talking about some real money. A Britain in the midst of fruit and vegetable out of season has been built on fast cargo and just-in-time delivery: now there’s talk of greengrocers running out of produce in the next few days. Millions of dollars, euros, and pounds in hotel bookings, flight arrangements, business travel, and family vacations are being put in jeopardy… and while some of that business will simply be rescheduled, a lot of it will simply evaporate.

The PBS Newshour will be presented with unexpected hotel and meal expenses in the coming days … if I can ever get home, that is.