To the Dominican Republic I Go

April 20, 2010

Weddings have been missed. Births have been missed. Babies have been conceived that otherwise would not have been. Lifelong friendships have formed. Serendipitous first romantic connections have blossomed in Hyde Park. Lovers have connected via Skype and Gmail video chat.

Yes, there will be a movie. And no, I still do not know how to pronounce that darn volcano’s name. No one does.

UK Airspace Closed Since Thursday

It’s 5pm GMT on Tuesday 20th of April 2010. I’m writing on a Eurostar train from London to Paris that will soon go under the ocean. I’m trying to get back to work at iContact in Durham, NC and to a loving girlfriend Jess in Chapel Hill.

UK airspace has been closed since Thursday mid-day. My flight home on Sunday was canceled. I had been stuck in London for three days, prior to deciding to stop waiting and head south.

A Plan to Escape

By Monday at noon I had a plan. I had booked a Hertz rental car at London Heathrow and would pick up Nathaniel Whittemore of Change.org and two other friends from the Skoll World Forum who were stranded here and drive down for a Friday flight in Madrid. The rental was expensive, but it was something that felt both adventurous and productive, two words that are too rarely aligned.

But then, in the hotel lobby the news came on saying the UK airspace would open. The newsflash scroller said airspace would open at 1800 hours. The lobby erupted with cheers.

My new 42 year old friend, fellow American business-traveler gone-astray Chris, and I jumped in a cab across the street to Heathrow Terminal 3 thinking we might as well go jump in line. He had been stuck since Thursday was trying somehow, someway to meet up with his wife, 9 year old son, and 7 year old daughter who left Boston today for his annual family vacation.

By the time we got back to the hotel with hopes dashed the newsflash scroller had corrected itself, by adding the word ‘tomorrow.’ But alas, there was hope for an opened Heathrow.

So I canceled the rental car and took take my chances staying put. I didn’t really want to learn how to drive on the left side of the road in the UK, anyway. Or for that matter, learn how to drive on the right side of the road in France and Spain with a right-sided steering wheel, regardless of the amount of liability insurance. Back to Plan C it was.

Excitement Until the Fiery Volcano Recast its Ash

After a serendipitous dinner with a new friend and Skoll delegate Darlene from Ikatu, who is setting up for-profit socially responsible businesses in Ghana to scalably employ disadvantaged youth after eighteen years at QVC, I prepared for bed excited at the possibility of going home.

Last night at midnight. I had a confirmed seat on a flight from Heathrow direct to Raleigh leaving tonight (Tuesday) at 8pm and had received the cherished official American Airlines text message telling me so. All was looking promising.

I forwent the mini-van to Madrid option that an entrepreneurial Skoll delegate had arranged to depart from our hotel at 5am and the Skoll Foundation canceled their rented coach service to Madrid intended to rescue their foundation members and stranded guests. All was looking rosy, and most went to bed happy.

But then, around 1am news spread on Twitter via the creatively coined #ashtag hastag that the volcano had started erupting again. By the 3am NATS update suddenly instead of preparing opening up Tuesday the situation was “dynamic and variable” which seemed to be governmental double-speak for “you’re probably screwed.”

And so the volcano started erupting again in the middle of the night, keeping London shut down for the sixth straight day.

Send in the Navy

British airspace, closed since Thursday, did open for a brief respite this morning in the North of the United Kingdom where a few lucky passengers slipped out. Plenty of planes coming from mainland Europe were flying overhead today as UK airspace was open for planes that flew above 20,000 feet. Unfortunately NATS did not allow planes on the ground to take off.

While the British government had sent in the HMS Albion to rescue stranded British tourists, partly due to political pressure stemming from an upcoming election that remains a toss up, they didn’t seem to be able to do much to get folks out of the UK.

The Queen Mary 2 cruise ship back to New York was fully booked up, the trains were full, the ferries were full, and the French train workers were on strike. Wonderful.

And thus I woke up, for the third morning in a row in a hotel adjoining Heathrow, anxiously awaiting news from the London Volcanic Ash Advisory Service (yes, really) and NATS as to whether they would allow London airports to open.

By noon the answer was a clear no.

Decision Time

After receiving the dreaded flight canceled text message, it was decision time.

And so, rather than waiting for an indefinite period of time, at least until Thursday, for a flight from Heathrow, here I am on a Eurostar train to Paris (the coach seats were all taken so here I am in first class anything for the first time in my life and hopefully the last).

Tomorrow, I have a flight booked to the Dominican Republic and then on to Miami Wednesday night and to RDU Thursday. Today, Paris is open. Tomorrow, we shall see. C’est la vie.

If Paris does not work out, then there is always a bus to Madrid. I have a backup refundable flight booked Friday from Madrid direct to Miami. It may prove difficult to get to Madrid from Paris with the French train workers on strike, but I’ll find a way.

I’m currently working on Plan F, hoping it sticks. I don’t think I’ve ever had a Plan F before, for anything.

Plan A: London to Raleigh by plane leaving Sunday

Plan B: London to Raleigh by plane leaving Monday

Plan C: London to Raleigh by plane leaving Tuesday

Plan D: London to Madrid (in rental car) to Raleigh (by plane) via Ecuador and New York, leaving Thursday

Plan E: London to Madrid (in mini-van) to Raleigh (by plane) via Miami, leaving Friday

Plan F: London to Paris (on the Eurostar train) to Raleigh (by plane) via Dominican Republic and Miami, leaving Wednesday

Plan G: London to Paris (on the Eurostar train) to Madrid (by bus) to Raleigh (by plane), via Miami, leaving Friday

Who would have thought going to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic via Paris would ever be the best option home to NC from London?!

I am sharing a Holiday Inn room tonight by Paris Charles de Gaulle airport with my new friend and fellow traveler from Boston, Chris, who is trying his best to get back to his family as soon as he can.

I’m enjoying the adventure and getting lots of work done.

Who We Should Not Forget As We Tell This Story

As the stories of the inconvenienced well-off are told, we musn’t forget those who are truly suffering tonight.

People like me, business travelers with an EA, who can afford hotels, are doing just fine and can relax and enjoy. I am not in the majority, however. Most here are tourists and families who are stuck and cannot easily afford the $2000 or $3000 extra cost per person to get home per person in any reasonable time frame.

I particularly have sympathy in this uniquely ambiguous situation for those who have truly been hurt financially or otherwise by this situation.

From the family sleeping in the Heathrow arrivals section, waiting now six days for their connecting flight, who cannot afford the jacked-up hotel rates (what was once 29 pounds is now 79, what was once 139 pounds is now 200) to the Kenyan farmer who now has nothing but wilted flowers or a rotten crop that must be tossed or turned into cow-feed, families have been economically devastated due to the decision to close the airspace, some say unnecessarily.

There is a tremendous economic story here, and tremendous economic pressure to open up the air.

Further, I hope that the attention this volcanic incident is getting, with¬† primarily middle-class and weathly Westerners “stranded” in nice hotels and having an extended European vacation (even if it is an expensive and unplanned one), will not detract from the ongoing much greater crisis in Haiti where there are 750,000 real human refugees who still to this day, 100 days on, are lacking shelter, clean water, and medical care.

As this story unfolds, I hope the global media does not lose touch with the much greater human story happening to folks who may not have as much resources. In our story, we should at least arc back to the other major natural activities of 2010 in this watershed year for strange natural behavior.

When You’re Stuck in a Trap Eat Cheese

The best line of the week was from Peter Greenberg at CBS speaking at TEDxVolcano, “When your stuck in a trap, eat the cheese.”

‘Tis the adventure of globalized commerce disrupted by a fiery Mother Nature.

So here I am in France. The train is now temporarily stuck due to a “problem on the tracks.” Perhaps some brie is called for.

UPDATE 12:53am: I made it to the hotel in Paris by the airport. UK airspace opened as of 9:34pm GMT Tuesday. The flight from Paris to the Dominican Republic is looking good for tomorrow. After waiting in line to see if we could get on an earlier flight and the only option being an outrageous $8000 business class ticket to Miami in the morning. We’re getting up at 6:30am to attempt to fly standby on anything to the U.S.

Volcano Causing Entrepreneurs to Be, Well, Entrepreneurial

April 18, 2010

I’m stuck in London for a few days due to the Eyjafjallajokull volcano eruption in Iceland.

I’m looking outside my hotel window at a calm Heathrow airport. It’s filled with parked planes, but nothing and no one is moving. All of the UK and much of European airspace is closed.

Here’s a concerning part–the last time the Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted in 1821 the eruption lasted for two years. Oh my! This volcano could affect European air travel for quite some time. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has said airlines are losing about ¬£130m per day in revenues.

Fortunately the forecast is calling for a storm toward the end of this week that should make it safe to fly again, at least for a time.

I’ve looked into taking the 7 day Southampton to New York cruise home (people are actually considering this!) or getting a ferry to Bilbao, Spain and then a train to Lisbon, which is currently open for most flights, but it would take at least three days to even get to Lisbon from London at the moment as the ferry services are mostly booked up.

So I’m going to get comfortable and get some work done. It looks like iContact’s European headquarters will be opening tomorrow :-) .

In the meantime I’m attending TEDxVolcano tonight in London which looks fun! A few hundred entrepreneurial attendees of the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship and OxfordJam remain stranded as volcano refugees–so Nathaniel Whittemore has in 24 hours organized this event to bring us back together in true entrepreneurial fashion.

Also entrepreneurial is a ‘rescue mission’ set up by a local TV host here who is taking Britons stranded in France back to the UK by boat.

Some here are suggesting the UK, French, and US militaries need to get some transatlantic boat services running to get people stranded on both sides of the oceans home and back to work and their families. A lot of people here would take a guaranteed 7 day return at this point.

Anyone have any creative ideas on how to get back to North Carolina?