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As U.K. Airspace Opens, Hope Returns for Stranded Travelers

Well, I’m still in London. The sky is still bright blue and beautiful, the weather is unseasonably fine for April, and the airspace over Britain is finally streaked with the occasional airplane after a five-day shut down of Europe’s busiest travel hub.

Scheduled to leave on Friday of last week, I’ve since chosen new seats on jets leaving London Heathrow for Sunday, Tuesday, and (fingers crossed) Thursday. I’ve been reporting for the NewsHour, closely following the steady stream of government announcements, news conferences, and expert speculation has meant having my own hopes raised and dashed more times than the average stranded international passenger sitting glumly in a terminal.

I left work Monday night reassured that the end of my unscheduled sojourn in Albion would soon be over: European governments were beginning to lift the flight bans. Industry insiders began to put together plans for unreeling so many days of pent up demand, planes and crews in the wrong places, and limited space for getting hundreds of thousands of passengers airborne.

Then, Tuesday morning, I woke up before the alarm rang and turned on the TV … there had been a massive release of smoke and ash from the Icelandic volcano, and it was headed straight for us.

NewsHour Associate Executive Producer Simon Marks, stuck with me here in Britain, was bumped from a Wednesday departure to Monday. My carrier hasn’t yet nixed my Thursday flight, but gloom is beginning to settle as another 13,000 flights were canceled Tuesday. We began plotting alternate routes … ferry to the coast of northern Spain? Bus to Paris and a fast train to Rome? Would the Madrid airport be able to handle the sudden influx from all over Europe to one of the small number of big capital air hubs that remained open?

Our team headed out to Dover on a fast train from London’s Victoria Station, darting across broad green fields and zipping past the small towns that punctuate the route … a cluster of houses, a few shops, a small green park, and a church spire. The sun was shining off the famous cliffs, and a light wind was blowing in from the English Channel.

The people getting off the ferries from Calais were tired. Relieved, sure. Glad to be home, of course. But after driving from across Europe, often after sleeping in airports, many of them looked weary. Waiting to go to France were a broad mix of travelers; retired couples, students on spring break, business people in their last pressed suits.

A common part of the stories told by returning British travelers was how much more money they had spent out of pocket on hotels, meals, and emergency transportation. Many of the people stuck in Britain were telling reporters they were tapped out, unable to access more cash easily, and angry that it was so hard to get help.

Throughout the five days the pressure was increasing from businesses to open the airports. Losses in Europe climbed above one billion, the papers were full of stories of dried-up flowers and rotting fruit thrown out by African farmers, and “we don’t know” was starting to sound like an unsatisfactory answer in the public’s ears.

Here in Britain, there’s a general election in a few weeks, and another televised debate between the party leaders vying to lead the next government. It’s hard to know what role electoral politics may have played in the decision to reopen the airports … those who know won’t tell, and those who would tell don’t know. But it was a reminder of the advantages and disadvantages of being in charge that Prime Minister Gordon Brown could send British warships to foreign ports to pick up his stranded countrymen, while at the same time his cabinet members faced the glare of television lights and increasingly aggressive questions about when the airports were going to open.

Tuesday night, I walked down a deserted train platform in Paddington station to a deserted train waiting to depart. It was the Heathrow Express, normally filled with people heading out to take long-haul red-eye flights to far-flung parts of the world. That night there were no backpackers hoping to score a cheap standby, no tourists dragging enormous rolling suitcases onto the train cars, no immigrant families saying goodbye on the platform to someone heading home. Just me.

The word came via e-mail from Washington as my train hurtled toward Heathrow: the British Airports Authority announced the country’s airspace was opening at 9pm. Flight operations would resume as soon as possible. Long-haul flights from Asia, Africa, and North America already in the air and bound for Heathrow would be allowed to land. A few hours earlier the government made the announcement those plane would be diverted to northern England and nearby continental airports.

Now the question is, how long will it take to get things back to normal? Oh yeah … and when will I be able to go home? I’ll have more later in the week.

Watch Ray’s latest report from London here.

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