Travel returning to normal as the blame game begins

As air travel begins to return to normal, the question of who’s going to pay for the expenses incurred by the flight ban is being raised. Airlines say the EU acted too hastily in creating a blanket ban that cost them more than a billion euros.

Flights in most countries have nearly reached their pre-eruption levels, but some airports in Sweden and Norway shut down late yesterday as a northerly wind puffed more ash in their direction. Tens of thousands of people are still waiting to get home as airlines struggle to deal with the backlog.

Meanwhile, airlines are saying the flight ban was too strict. Eurocontrol, which manages Europe’s air traffic, insists that at the beginning of the eruption, the best scientific knowledge said that flying through any amount of ash could damage jet engines. The airlines and Eurocontrol ran some test flights and found that engines are more resistant than previously thought. Eurocontrol then made the ban more lax, allowing some and then most flights to resume.

Airlines are asking for taxpayer money to deal with the costs and for changes in EU rules that required them to put up stranded passengers in hotels.

The Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland is still erupting, but only emitting a small fraction of the ash it once was.

On a personal note, my wife finally made it back to Madrid last night after being trapped in England since Thursday. She reported that Heathrow was crowded but orderly. Her flight left ninety minutes late, which is certainly understandable considering the circumstances. One big mystery is why there were only about thirty people on board!

On the first night she was stranded, British Airways paid for her hotel and food, then stopped paying. She had to pay 8 pounds to go to airport the next day, only to find it closed. The second night at the Heathrow Sheraton cost 195 pounds, including internet connection, breakfast, and a snack. She then went to stay in Oxford, where we know a cheap but good B&B called the Newton House. Her stay cost 260 pounds. A return bus ticket to Oxford was 25 pounds. Other expenses were 20 pounds a day for five days. The grand total came to 588 pounds, or $905.

British Airways says they don’t have to pay for more than one night of accommodation and food, something the BBC financial desk disputes. Luckily she was on a business trip for her scientific institute, so they’re going to pick up the tab, and presumably try to get the money from BA later. So her six-day headache was in fact a best-case scenario. She was luckier than all those people who ran out of their medication, missed important family events, or racked up a big balance on their credit cards. There are even rumors of Americans being fired from their jobs for absenteeism.

This has all the makings of years of litigation.