Students stranded abroad as summer term begins

| Apr. 26, 2010 |

Published by Student Direct: Mancunion

Girish Gupta, Harriet Bailey and Adam Farnell

The sudden closing down of UK airspace nearly a fortnight ago has left many students and staff stranded abroad during their Easter holidays, unable to make it back in time for university commitments. With many dissertation and post-Easter deadlines looming last week, as well as the usual university commitments, hundreds of students found themselves with genuine and unavoidable reasons for a lack of attendance.

One second year economics student was forced to helicopter himself over to London from Paris after an epic journey from Vancouver, Canada.

“Eventually [the airline] said we would be flying, but they didn’t know where we were landing! It could have been Paris or Amsterdam,” said the student, not wanting to be named so as not to harm his chances of obtaining mitigating circumstances. “I think they could have told us to stay in Canada, as we found when we got to Amsterdam that all flights were grounded. But they didn’t want to reimburse us a nine hour flight.”

The student then found himself stuck in Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, unable to leave. “I think they should have given people temporary visas. They closed all the shops in the airport, but people couldn’t go out of the airport. If they had, more people could have stayed in hotels or visited the red-light district, and it would have benefited their economy. Then people could also have got a train or bus through Europe and they could have closed the airport fully. I don’t think it was handled very well.

“I managed to book a train from Amsterdam to Paris, and from there I got a helicopter from my dad’s company to London.”

The problems come in the wake of the eruption of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull which left a plume of ash floating over much of Western Europe.

Dr Grant Allen, an atmospheric physicist at the University of Manchester, explained why the cloud of ash is so dangerous.

“The plume is getting to an altitude of six to 11 km. A lot of planes crossing the Atlantic fly in that region; they can’t fly above or below it because it’s not fuel efficient.

“The dust that the volcano emits is a combination of minerals and gases. It’s the mineral dust that causes the problems. When it enters the jet engine it is heated and solidifies to form a sort of glass. This clogs the engine.”

Staff also struggled with the closed airspace. Sandra Bayer, a lecturer in German, was stranded with her boyfriend in Morocco. “Since I am a language tutor in German Studies, I should have been back at work this Monday, so all my classes have had to be cancelled for this week,” said Bayer.

“We considered going back by land, but that would take at least four days, so we thought it wiser to wait for the flight situation to improve.

“We have had to extend our holiday by one week involuntarily. We are staying in a town on the coast and I have [used] the internet cafe my office, so that I can at least stay in touch with work.”

Twenty-six University of Manchester staff and students remained stranded in Johannesburg on Friday and blamed British Airways for their problems. “Compared to other airlines there has been no visible organisation of the situation or even an attempt at such, and frequent, sudden and unexplained “policy changes” have resulted in priority being given to outgoing holiday makers over stranded passengers desperate to get home,” said student Matt Crabtree.

The University of Manchester has set up a website and sent out many emails giving advice to students affected. It suggests that those returning from holidays inform staff immediately and provide an estimated date of return. “In the meantime, you are advised to continue to prepare for examinations and to log onto Blackboard, where staff will post information and lecture notes,” said the University advice.

However, the economics student was not impressed with University aid. “The University don’t seem to be doing much for students. Yeah, they’ve started a website with information, which they update frequently, but they have said they still expect you to revise for exams. How can you if your stuff is in your luggage!” he asked.

Eurostar and P&O Ferries, the only viable methods for many students of getting to the UK from mainland Europe were accused of profiteering from the situation as prices for the ferry company shot up from £60 to £150 for a return while those for the train company began at £69 return before jumping to £179 for a single ticket.

Lesley Retallack, a Eurostar spokeswoman, said: “We are absolutely not trying to take advantage of the situation. It’s quite simply the fact that the demand has taken our prices to the top of our existing fare structure.

Many students did not feel that anyone was to blame for the chaos. “To be honest, Singapore Airlines has been really good in that they’re helpful on the phone and even called me personally to tell me my flight was cancelled,” said Hassan Nasser, studying Economics and Politics, stuck in his home in Hong Kong.

One final year student’s Facebook status summed up the coupling of financial loss and academia: “Train from Marseille to Lille: €130. Train From Lille to London £185. Train from London to Manchester £40. Getting back in time to perhaps save my degree: Priceless. There are some things money can’t buy, for everything else there’s a £1500 overdraft facility.”