ADDISON COUNTY — Air traffic over Europe slowly picked up late last week after a giant plume of volcanic ash brought airports across the continent to a standstill, stranding hundreds of thousands of travelers and wreaking economic havoc to the tune of more than $1 billion.
The massive flight disruptions overseas — the largest since Sept. 11, 2001 — reached all the way to Addison County. Local travelers found their spring break trips disrupted when the unexpected disaster grounded them in airports from Germany to Ireland.
The aftermath of a volcanic eruption in Iceland on April 14 caused international headaches last week: Airlines cancelled more than 100,000 flights last week amid fear that ash from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano would clog jet engines and potentially stall planes mid-flight.
The airline industry is estimating losses that could total as much as $1.7 billion dollars, a loss that some economists are saying could bankrupt some European companies.
Among those stuck overseas were 17 students and two teachers from Vergennes Union High School, who found their spring break exchange trip to Bochum, Germany, unexpectedly extended by nearly a week after their flight from Düsseldorf was cancelled last Tuesday.
The students were scheduled to finally return to the United States on Monday. Rather than spend the intervening six days in the airport, the students and their advisors remained in Bochum, where they continued living with their German host families.
VUHS has a longstanding relationship with the Goethe Schule in Bochum. Every other year, Vergennes students head to the city in western Germany for a week of language and cultural immersion, and in the off years Vergennes families host German students.
VUHS Principal Ed Webbley said the school was in frequent contact with the exchange group, and had even set up a system last week for sending homework to students by e-mail to help make up for missed classes.
“Obviously it’s not like sitting in class, but Mark (Powers) and Janet (Kepes) being such professionals, they’re really helping the kids stay up as best they can,” Webbley said. “It’s more effective than I think we had imagined.”
That’s not to say the trip didn’t cause some scheduling conflicts at the high school last week. Several athletes were absent from games and practices, and one student missed a band trip to New York.
There’s a silver lining: “The kids get almost another week of German, and of course, German food,” Webbley said.
The Vergennes trip was the only local school group stranded abroad as a result of the volcano — but the spring break that most area schools celebrated the week prior to the April 14 eruption meant several families were also away.
That was the case for Middlebury residents Nate and Lynda Burt, who were traveling in Ireland with their sons Craig and David last week.
The family was originally slated to return to the United States April 17 — a date that was pushed back to the 19th and finally the 24th.
Their extended vacation came with a heavy financial burden. Their vacation was a package deal that included airfare, lodging and a car rental. Extending those accommodations would be have “terribly expensive,” Nate Burt wrote in an e-mail, so the family stayed in a hotel near the Shannon airport.
In addition to the unexpected extra costs of the vacation, the delays brought a fair share of anxiety and uncertainty about travel. Though Burt wrote that the family’s house sitter, employer and local school were accommodating, the family was concerned about the long absence from home, work and the classroom.
The Burts reported that the airport at Shannon was empty until the planes began flying again.
“We’ve heard an earful from some of the other stranded passengers at the hotel, though,” Burt wrote. “One isn’t booked to return until the 29th. They bought another set of tickets from another airline, just to return a few days earlier.”
But the family has tried to make the most of the situation.
“The best part of it all has been getting past the anger and frustration about travel woes, and anxiety about home, then simply enjoying our extended time here,” Burt wrote. “We’ve been much more relaxed and appreciative of the people and place ever since. There are many Irish citizens overseas who are eager to return here as well — talking with their friends and family here about the situation has been good for all. Feeding into the press about lawsuits against airlines, governments, etc., just seems plain foolish.”
Still, he wrote, the family is looking forward to getting home to their pets, own beds, and the luxury of clean laundry.
Making the most of the volcanic disruption also fell to some Vermonters in Addison County — like the events planners at Middlebury College’s Mahaney Center for the Arts.
Events Manager Allison Coyne Carroll learned early last week that the pianist scheduled to play at the college last Friday — London-based performer Paul Lewis — wouldn’t be able to make it out of London in time for the performance.
Tickets to the concert had been sold and the venue booked, so the arts center and Lewis’ agent began scrambling for a substitute. The problem of delayed or grounded performers hit hard venues around the world, Carroll said, including one prestigious performance center in London that had to cancel all of its weekend events.
Carroll worked with Lewis’ agency to book another artist, New York-based Hong Xu. The concert proceeded as planned on Friday, though Xu played a different program than the one Lewis had arranged.
Xu, Carroll said, was busy last week filling in for other stranded performers as well — he came to Middlebury from another substitute gig in Vancouver.
The arts center has had to cancel or reschedule performances in the past, particularly in the cases of occasional blizzards.
“Never a volcano,” Carroll said.
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at email@example.com.