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Flight delays for Icelandic volcano strand British family in Charles County

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 20, 2010; C01

Fabian Forde can't remember when his original flight back to England was supposed to be. The 11th? Wait, maybe it was the 12th. "I'm so confused right now," he says. "Everyone's been throwing numbers at me."

Understandable.

Forde, 28, and his two children, ages 4 and 5, have been waiting -- and waiting some more -- to get home ever since a volcano in Iceland started belching smoke and ash into the jet stream and airports across Europe began putting CANCELED signs next to hundreds of flights. They're still waiting, stuck in a motel room in Waldorf.

You think you've had travel hassles? Consider Forde's non-odyssey. He's one of perhaps millions of people throughout Europe and North America who have been inconvenienced by days of volcano-related travel chaos.

Thanks to dozens of backed-up and canceled flights, Virgin Atlantic, the airline Forde is booked on, has told him that the next available flight from Dulles International Airport is April 25. Maybe. More likely: May 1. Unless, that is, Forde is willing to pay about 6,000 British pounds ($9,200) to buy three precious tickets for an earlier flight on another airline.

Forde, a deputy manager of an electrical supply company located outside London, doesn't have that kind of money.

Forde and his family came to the States for a holiday that began on April 2. Midway into the trip, a relative in Jamaica died, and Forde's wife, Jade, flew there to attend the funeral, intending to rejoin her husband and children in America.

The eruption's disruption caused a delay in her trip back to the U.S. She was scheduled to fly to Washington on Monday night.

Forde didn't bother going to the airport last Friday for the trip back to Heathrow; news reports about delays were already rife by then. Instead, Forde called the airline to make other arrangements. After an hour on hold, he was cut off. After another hour on hold, the airline told him it couldn't help. He'd have to call his travel agent. Which turned out to be another dead end.

Now he's ready to erupt.

"I'm really frustrated," he said Monday afternoon from his room at the Comfort Suites. "I'm just about at the end of my tether. . . . I feel very let down by my airline. None of this is any fault of my own. No one seems to be able to do a thing."

Forde has family in Prince George's County, but staying with them is out of the question. His children are afraid of his relatives' dog and cat, and Forde is allergic to them. Hence, the Comfort Suites; Forde has booked the room for seven nights and is considering reserving it for an additional seven.

With the hotel, transatlantic cellphone bills and additional meals, he figures he's already spent an extra $1,500 and counting. Forde is covering the costs with his credit card; he's asked his mother and mother-in-law to wire additional funds.

The upside, if any, is that his children seem to be enjoying themselves, especially with lunch at the McDonald's and Wendy's within walking distance of their hotel. Forde has e-mailed his children's school about their whereabouts, and "they understand the situation."

It's a little more dicey back at work. Forde's company is small, and his unexpected absence has placed his firm in "some financial difficulty." His wife, a personal assistant for an electrical retailer, is also under pressure to return to work.

Maria Roach, Forde's American aunt by marriage, remains frustrated, too. "I honestly believe that this started as an act of nature, and there's nothing that anyone could do about it, but now it's turned into a manmade disaster. The [travel industry] is capitalizing on people's suffering. They're quoting outrageous prices to get anywhere. It's just been heart-wrenching for [the Forde family] and so many other people."

Virgin Atlantic did not return calls seeking comment. Probably pretty busy right now.

Some airports in northern Europe began limited service on Monday, but aviation officials say normal traffic won't resume until skies are clear.

In which case, Fabian Forde and his family may be in for a longer haul than they realize. The last time the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland erupted, in 1821, it remained active for more than a year.

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