Battling the Ash to Reach AIIM Conference

April 27, 2010

3 minute read

At one dire moment, it appeared my “best” option was a 12-hour train ride from to Frankfurt, Germany to Madrid, Spain, a plane to Los Angeles via Bogota, Columbia, and then get from LA to Boston, where I live. That was the scenario I faced on Day 4, camped out at the Frankfurt Airport during the lockdown of European flights recently.

I knew there would be trouble the minute we landed in Frankfurt; it was 3 p.m. local time, and the 11-hour flight from Osaka, Japan had been uneventful. However, during the taxi to the gate, the pilot announced that customers connecting to Scandinavia, England and Ireland would have to seek customer service in the airport because their flights had been cancelled.  The reason? A volcanic eruption in Iceland.  (It was not until the next day that I realized this smoking behemoth went by the name “Eyjafjallajökull”.)

I pushed any concern from my mind because my flight to Boston was not until the next day.  Instead, I concentrated on clearing passport control, gathering my bags and getting to my hotel.  The time difference from Japan was a killer; I was ready for bed!

The next day I awoke (at 4 a.m., thanks to my jet lag) to CHAOS. The majority of EU airspace had been closed, and all flights into and out of Germany were cancelled. Uh oh…

I ran through a mental “to do” list: secure a hotel room for that night, get some Euros, get an EU charger for my cell phone, and rebook myself on a new flight. The hotel lobby was a zoo; I’m not exaggerating when I say that about 70 people were in line to speak with one of 5 front desk representatives. I got in the shortest line. (Thank you Starwood Gold Preferred Guest Program.)

After about 30 minutes, I got to speak with an associate, who politely explained that the hotel was fully booked, and they could not extend my stay for an additional night. I protested, and asked her to consult with her manager. Two minutes later, my stay was extended by one night.  (Had I known that this problem would repeat itself two more times, I would have reserved my room for a week.)

My BB: “…I may have a problem getting to AIIM…”

With my hotel room secured for the night, I sent a quick work email via Blackberry; “I think I’ll be able to get out of the EU prior to Monday, but if not, I may have a problem getting to AIIM in Philadelphia.” Luckily, none of my colleagues scheduled to attend AIIM were stranded anywhere, so everyone told me not to worry and to get home safely.

I’ll spare you the account of my next four days in limbo. Suffice it to say, there were several touch-and-go moments at the front desk during which I feared I might lose my hotel room, many boring hours spent watching CNN to see if the ash situation was improving, and many calls to multiple travel agents to evaluate all options for returning home.

In the end, I made it home via my original carrier on Tuesday night, April 20. It was blind luck that I was on the flight. On Saturday, my travel agent had re-booked me for the first available flight, not having any idea if or when the ash would clear.  The EU carriers had opted not to automatically rebook anyone, the reservations numbers were constantly busy (I couldn’t even hold for an agent), and the lines to speak with someone at the airport were about 1000 people deep.

Like I said, it was pure luck that I had a convenient hotel room for the entire “layover”, and that I left on a plane the first day the skies were reopened.  The only unlucky part was missing the AIIM conference.  I guess there is always the next event!

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