Thousands of British tourists may be stranded abroad until late May


As many as 50,000 British travellers remain stranded abroad this weekend because of the volcanic ash crisis, some being told they face delays of up to a month before they can return home. Many have heard that they face weeks of delays, despite airline appeals yesterday for volunteers to give up their seats to help speed the return of those stranded.

The Foreign Office said that British diplomats around the world were stepping up efforts to help passengers facing hardship. In Bangkok, consular officials set up an emergency desk at the airport to help hundreds of people forced to sleep at the airport. The travellers’ predicament has been made worse by the street disturbances which broke out between anti-government protesters and security forces in Bangkok.

Consular staff handed out 150 foam mattresses and toiletries after as many as 300 passengers were forced to sleep on the floor of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi international airport, having being told they will not fly home until mid-May at the earliest.

Cath Levett, an IoS employee who is stranded in Thailand, said: “If we’re here until mid-May the holiday will have cost us at least an extra £1,500. We’ve got insurance, but I doubt they’ll pay out. In Bangkok there were queues of people at Western Union waiting to get money sent from home.”

Another traveller stranded is Elizabeth Emanus from south London, who has been told she will not be able to return home from St Lucia until 23 May. She said: “A lot of people have been put up in hotels, but we were told we’ve got to pay for our own meals and accommodation and keep the receipts. We only saved for a holiday: we weren’t expecting to be here another four weeks.”

Ann Sparks, 60, from Bristol, who waited for more than a week in Johannesburg for her connecting BA flight, said: “I’ve been spending every day at the airport in queues, from late afternoon until 11.30pm, when they tell us the flights are full and to come back and queue the next day. I’m normally a very calm person, but this has made me so angry it’s making me ill.”

Brian and Kate Herbison, a retired couple from Bristol, will not fly home from Sao Paulo, Brazil until 3 May, having refused to pay BA £2,000 each to fly business class. Brian said: “We felt that given the circumstances they would have upgraded someone and freed up seats. But they said they were keeping business class seats free in case people wanted to pay.”

Many travellers report angry scenes at airport check-in desks after it was revealed that despite laying on empty flights to passenger hotspots such as Hong Kong, Dubai and New York in a bid to ease congestion, BA admitted some flights have returned to the UK with empty seats.

BA said its computer system forced empty seats to be made available for sale, but the tickets had been significantly overpriced, and so they might remain unsold. Stranded customers were not being asked to pay anything extra when rebooked on a new flight.

Several airlines yesterday appealed for passengers, particularly on long-haul flights, to voluntarily postpone their travel. Ryanair insisted it had cleared its passenger backlog, and holiday firm Thomson said all their customers would be home by tomorrow.

Two-thirds of the 150,000 Britons stranded abroad should have returned home by the end of today, according to the Association of British Travel Agents (Abta). A lack of air capacity meant some passengers would face delays, an Abta spokesman added.

As passengers coped with the delays, insurance companies and airlines continued to squabble over who will pay the cost of the disruption caused by the Icelandic volcanic eruptions.

The Centre for Economics and Business Research estimates Britain has lost around £100m every day, including £75m in revenues lost by the travel industry and £25m in disruptions to those who could not travel. Virgin Atlantic boss Sir Richard Branson stepped into the fray yesterday, calling on the Government to compensate the industry for its overreaction in enforcing a blanket ban.

Stranded in paradise

Emily Fishpool, 31, a graphic designer from St Ives, Cornwall was supposed to fly home from Thailand last Tuesday after five weeks’ travel. When she heard about the ash cloud she chose to continue her holiday rather than brave Bangkok.

“I had done a detox and yoga in Thailand and was in quite a chilled frame of mind, so when I found out my flight was cancelled I decided not to contact Qantas immediately. It was clear I wasn’t going anywhere for a few days. I went to a retreat in Koh Phagnan. My boyfriend managed to book me on to a new flight 18 days after my original flight but now I’m looking forward to a couple more weeks of yoga, sun and amazing food. I’d rather be on the islands than stuck at the airport.”