UMaine professor stranded in London

Posted April 20, 2010, at 10:31 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — A University of Maine assistant professor who has been stranded in England because flights were disrupted by a volcanic eruption in Iceland says U.S. officials have little understanding of the crisis the situation has created for American travelers abroad.

Sunny Hughes of Bangor, a UM communication and journalism faculty member, left the United States on April 12 to attend a three-day Surveillance and Society Conference in London, where she presented research for the university. She planned to fly home on Sunday, April 18, but her flight and all others were canceled because of the thick ash spewing from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano.

Since then, Hughes and her husband, Christopher Ross, who accompanied her on the trip, have been spending hours on the telephone trying to find a way home to join their two young sons, who are staying with friends in Rangeley. Their plan is to get to Madrid, Spain, where the airspace is clear of the choking ash, for a flight out on Monday, April 26.

“It seems kind of emergent to be a mom and be on the other side of the Atlantic,” Hughes said Monday night via telephone. In addition, she said she was eager to get back to the university, where her classes are being covered by her colleagues. “They [her colleagues] are very sweet and very kind, but you know, it’s the last two weeks of the semester and to be a professor and not be there is really alarming.”

Hughes called it frustrating to see the efforts in the United Kingdom on the part of the British government to help British citizens with options and compensation while Americans receive little information or help from their country.

“Travelers who are based out of Europe are a little more serene. We’ve seen the news reports that Britain is sending the British navy to fetch passengers from continental Europe,” Hughes said. “It’s kind of surprising to me how little information is coming out of America.”

When Hughes called the U.S. Embassy in England on Sunday and asked for suggestions on how to return home, she was advised to take an ocean liner out of Southampton, England, to Miami, Fla. “She was quite serious,” Hughes said of the embassy official. “She was also making jokes — the embassy lady — about Obama stopping up the volcano with a balloon. It just kind of made me feel like, well, is the American government doing anything?”

In between bouts of burning up the telephone lines trying to find a way home, Hughes said she also has been contacting members of Congress to let them know being stranded is a big deal for American travelers. She said it has become a “huge financial crisis” because of the unanticipated extra cost of transportation, food, telephone expenses and hotel accommodations.

The first glimpse of the crisis to come was last Thursday, Hughes said, when one of the conference attendees, from Scotland, said all flights were being canceled because of the volcano and he was worried.

“I kind of giggled at first,” Hughes said, “because you know, that seemed unlikely that they would be closing all flights over the United Kingdom.” She said she really didn’t pay much attention to it until Friday, when she learned the flights were being canceled.

After being notified on Saturday, April 17, that their flight had been canceled, the couple called US Airways to reschedule. Hughes said the best the airline could do was possibly fly them out on Wednesday, so the flight was scheduled, but the couple also began to search for an alternative route home.

“We had really little confidence in that from the news that we were getting here in the United Kingdom, that they were actually going to reopen, or if they did reopen, that they would really let our flight go out,” Hughes said. “It just seemed kind of uncertain how long we would have to wait around and accrue hotel bills and more expenses. We can wait around here until Wednesday and see if flights go out, but you know we’ve been waiting to see flights go out for the last five days and they haven’t. It’s a really precarious situation to be in because you very much feel like you’re in purgatory.”

The couple managed to book a flight out of Madrid on April 26, but the difficult part, Hughes said, would be getting to Spain. While they have booked passage on a train to Paris, which was “incredibly difficult” and pricey, they are uncertain how they’ll get from Paris to Madrid. Hughes said the situation has led to price gouging in the transportation sector, as well as for overnight lodging. The train tickets were expensive compared with their normal rate, she said.

“It is a little unsettling, but we’re hoping at this point that maybe things have turned for the better, and whether they have or not, we’re heading for Madrid and flying out on Monday and hopefully we’re going to make the best of it until then.” Hughes said. “There are worse fates, I suppose.”

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