Poles battle for buses as volcano ash sows air travel chaos

22nd April 2010, Comments 0 comments

It looked like a scene from a disaster movie -- even without a volcano in sight.

At the communist-era international bus station in Warsaw, Poland, dense crowds of people trying to get to Britain frantically waved tickets at bus drivers and elbowed each other out of the way as if the world was ending.

Moustachioed drivers pointed to lists at the front of the coaches, apparently of passengers allowed on. But contrary to expectations they turned out to be lists of people not allowed on the buses, meaning many people ended up queuing at least three times at different vehicles.

A woman in a red jacket broke down in tears. A man shouted over his mobile phone at a bus company.

But finally, somehow, three coaches marked Polska-Anglia -- company Eurolines had laid on two extra because of the demand -- rolled out of the station an hour late at noon (1000 GMT) on Tuesday on their 27-hour odyssey.

"It makes me ashamed to be Polish," passenger Kris Michalik told an AFP journalist who was returning to London from Warsaw on the same coach, after reporting on the death of Poland's president Lech Kaczynski in an air crash.

"It's not normally like this here. It reminds me of the crowds you used to get during the 1970s for the seaside trains during the communist times."

Trans-European coach travel is a budget option often favoured by Poles, but the ash cloud has forced hordes of air travellers to hit the road too.

Michalik, 40, a laminator from Warsaw, said he had to get back to work in London after his April 15 flight on LOT Polish Airlines was cancelled.

He said he did not blame European authorities for shutting down the airspace, but lamented his situation nevertheless.

"A bus journey this long is torture, slavery," he said.

Eurolines service E-193 was a microcosm of the week-long chaos caused by a cloud of volcanic ash from Iceland, which left millions of air travellers struggling desperately to get home however they could for work, family, school or other reasons.

The coach's route took it from Warsaw through the largely flat scenery of western Poland, Germany, Belgium, northern France and finally across the English Channel to Britain.

At the second motorway service station of the journey, about seven hours in, Polish fashion model Magdalena Buczek, 23, was feeling the strain.

"I'm very annoyed. I hate it. I'm going to explode," she said, as a lorry swished by.

She had been due to fly with British Airways to London, where she lives, on Monday because she had to be at work there by Thursday, but was told she would likely not fly until next week. Her family had prepared her a large bag of sandwiches and snacks for the gruelling trip.

"BA were very nice actually. But I don't agree with them grounding all the planes. It was stupid," he said.

Soon afterwards, back on the coach, there were gasps and wry laughs when a passenger spotted the vapour trails of a lone aircraft streaking across the orange evening sky.

After an evening of violent movies dubbed into Polish, most passengers seemed to get some sleep during the long, leg-numbing night, while the team of three drivers worked in shifts.

By morning, the bleary-eyed travellers were herded off the coach and through customs at the French port of Calais for the 90-minute ferry crossing -- after a 90-minute wait.

Finally the white cliffs of the British port of Dover came in sight, and with London only just over an hour or so away, the coach rolled into London's Victoria Coach station at 2:00 pm (1300 GMT).

There were sighs and a smattering of applause, but for Dean Nixon there was still another five-hour train journey ahead to the northeastern town of Middlesbrough.

"I can't even think -- I barely know who I am any more," he said.

Nixon, 25, said he and a group of 10 church volunteers had turned up to Warsaw airport on the morning of April 15, when Europe's airspace began to shut down.

They waited for most of the day for their flight with Hungarian budget airline Wizz Air, which covers the Poland-Britain route.

Nixon said they were given 60 euros (80 dollars) a night each for accommodation, but then the airline refused to pay any more after two nights. The group were forced to seek shelter with a local Polish Christian group, who found families to put their British counterparts up for two nights until the coach journey.

"But we're off to India next month -- so let's hope the cloud is gone by then," he said.

© 2010 AFP

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