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Volcano leaves stranded passengers fuming

Media attention wasn't going to stop these stranded passengers from eating their Asian meal swissinfo.ch

Some of the would-be passengers at Zurich’s airport queue at the ticket desks trying to make alternative plans or hoping for good news. They don’t receive any.

This content was published on April 19, 2010 - 21:46

Others meander, contemplating how they will get home. For a few it’s an opportunity to snap photos of the video screens reminding them they won’t be going anywhere.

Switzerland’s busiest airport has been closed since Saturday. In some parts of the country the faint haze of volcanic ash is visible. If the people waiting at the airport can’t see it, they feel it in their sore backs after a night of sleep on the tiled floor. Or in their wallets.

Jon Deceirdo was leading a group of Filipino workers to work on a cruise ship sailing from Amsterdam. The workers are too poor to buy their tickets – from Manila to Bangkok to Zurich and on to the Netherlands – and the idea was the price would be deducted from their wages. The ship sails on Monday night.

Instead they are trying to get to the ship’s next port of call, which is the northern German city of Hamburg.

Deceirdo told swissinfo.ch the airline had provided them with one night’s accommodation. Some in Zurich’s Filipino community have brought traditional dishes in plastic containers and drinks from the grocery store.

They spent much of the day wondering how to get to Hamburg and who would pay. The passengers received a SFr5 ($4.7) gift certificate for food. In the airport, that’s enough for a bottle of water.

After hearing word of their situation from swissinfo.ch, a Swiss representative said the airline would take care of travel arrangements for the passengers. By the end of the day the Filipinos had scheduled a van for the next morning. The airline, which previously said sleeping space in the airport was closed, reopened it with beds.

Deceirdo doesn’t begrudge the airline for his group’s woes: “We cannot take our rights to them. They did their best to provide.”

Losses

Airlines say they are losing roughly $200 million per day. Rasheed Abbas, a salesman for a battery distributor from Qatar has been waiting to return to Abu Dhabi.

He recognizes the swissinfo microphone and is eager to weigh in. “No help,” he says alternating between English and French. “Pas d’hôtel. C’est catastrophique.” One night cost him SFr200. He hasn’t showered in four days and is planning to sleep at the airport. He’s not happy with his carrier, Qatar Airways, which he says has provided him with nothing.

Those travelling with tour groups might be a little luckier. An organiser in the resort town of Interlaken caters to Koreans. The man, who calls himself Bruce Lee, has lived in Switzerland 15 years and remembers only once when the airport was empty; that was a massive snowstorm ten years ago.

Lee enjoys a coffee and smokes a cigarette outside terminal two as his 21 guests – of some 100,000 Korean tourists that visit Switzerland each year – wait inside. He was able to find them hotel rooms for the night. They are on standby to fly back.

Margaret Gröblaher of Canada missed her Monday flight to Toronto after a skiing trip in St Moritz. She speaks with somebody at a service counter and leaves disappointed.

“Minus nine”

“She is not even an Air Canada employee. Air Canada doesn’t have anybody here.” Her rating for the airline on a scale of one to ten: “Probably I would rate them minus nine.”

Swissport, the company that manages the desks in Zurich, as well as ground handling and logistics services at airports across the world, says its employees are following the instructions of the airlines.

“Basically what we are telling all the customers is they should get in touch with the airline concerned,” Stephan Beerli, head of communications, told swissinfo.ch.

Gröblaher owns a business in the city of Oakville, near Toronto, and says costs will pile up. “I have a disabled child and I have to have somebody look after her,” she said.

Service complaints

Abby and Toryin are part of a group of four women who spent their holidays in Switzerland. They were meant to return to New York on Sunday. The two are flying with American Airlines. Their friends booked with Continental.

Abby is close to livid at losing her hotel room. “We don’t have a reservation any more,” she said, her luggage cart not far away. The group has run out of cash and is putting expenses on their credit card. Their experience with American: “No help, no information, no nothing.”

Toryin says the airline did not provide a telephone for them to call relatives. All four are Nigerian immigrants. “They were so nasty, to tell you the truth… Another person came in. A white person, I’m sorry to say. And they offered him a phone to call a hotel.”

Rahman, who was disrupted en route to Manchester from Italy is convinced the volcano was an act of God. “It is like a learning experience for us. It is a sign for the intelligent ones and a warning for the disobedient ones.”

Rahman inspects the ingredient list on a sandwich provided by Swiss to ensure it doesn’t contain animal fat. It doesn’t and he and his elderly travelling companion take five for their group.

“One mountain brings whatever is inside and the whole world is stuck,” he adds, paraphrasing the Koran. He muses God could also burst the tops of the Swiss Alps.

He received hospitality from a mosque in Zurich and has been impressed with Swiss people overall. “Not only Muslims but people in general are very good here,” he said before leaving for prayers.

Justin Häne, still stranded, at Zurich airport, swissinfo.ch

Swiss airports

Zurich airport is Switzerland's largest international gateway and hub to Swiss International Air Lines.

Geneva and Basel also operate regular international flights.

Bern and Lugano are mainly regional airports.

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Volcanic ash

Small jagged pieces of rocks, minerals, and volcanic glass the size of sand and silt (less than 2 millimetres (1/12 inch) in diameter) erupted by a volcano are called volcanic ash.

Volcanic ash is not the product of combustion. It is hard, does not dissolve in water, is extremely abrasive and mildly corrosive, and conducts electricity when wet.

Volcanic ash is formed during explosive volcanic eruptions. Explosive eruptions occur when gases dissolved in molten rock (magma) expand and escape violently into the air, and also when water is heated by magma and abruptly flashes into steam.

Expanding gas shreds magma and blasts it into the air, where it solidifies into fragments of volcanic rock and glass.

Once in the air, wind can blow the tiny ash particles tens to thousands of kilometres away from the volcano.

(Source: United States Geological Survey)

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