My volcanic odysseyApril 21, 2010: 11:01 AM ET
How an 'exile' stranded in England after the Icelandic eruption finally found his way home.
I'm no classicist, but I believe the first road warrior to heroically endure hardships to make it home from a frustratingly long business trip was Odysseus. Stranded in London since Saturday, I can hardly claim his deprivations, however. I've been put up in grand style at my sister's flat in a posh neighborhood of London, had access to her incredibly accommodating office and its employees, and generally have enjoyed an amusing and stimulating time about the unusually sunny English capital.
My odyssey has been of a different sort, more emotional than physical. It's been the odd fate of all us of "volcano exiles," stranded in Europe during peacetime, unable to get very far but in no particular danger or extreme discomfort. There have been challenges. The situation changes hourly. Information is unreliable. Not knowing when one will be able to get back to home and family is strangely harder than actually being away.
I arrived in England on Wednesday, April 14, the afternoon before ash from the Icelandic volcano shut down British air space. I came for a conference in Oxford, the Skoll World Forum on social entrepreneurship. The closures were a source of curiosity, but everyone in Oxford assumed the cloud literally would blow over quickly and nobody would be inconvenienced. By Friday evening everything had changed. Europe was in lockdown. Having traveled to London from Oxford, my Saturday flight from Heathrow had been cancelled and I had no idea when I'd get out.
My weeklong game of seat arbitrage began. That night, in the wee hours of Saturday morning I re-booked my British Airways flight for Wednesday – today, as it happens – and then bought another flight, to Boston, for Monday. (Boston was all I could get.) The next morning I bought a flight to San Francisco for Monday, cancelled the Boston flight and later bought yet another trip for Friday, April 23. All my flights were refundable and somewhat reasonable, in the thousand-dollar range. Later in the week I checked in for other days, figuring that more options were better than fewer, and learned that the airlines had wised up to people like me. One-way, refundable, coach tickets to the U.S. were pricing in the $7,000 range.
With all U.K. planes grounded and no end in sight, the stranded began making the best of things. U.S. venture firm First Round Capital held an impromptu "office hours" party at its London offices on Saturday. On Sunday night the TED organization held an event in London featuring speakers from the Skoll Foundation, including famed epidemiologist Larry Brilliant, now head of the Skoll Global Threats Fund. Bizarrely, considering a cloud of volcanic ash was suspended over head in the atmosphere, London enjoyed day after day of stunning blue skies and unseasonably warm weather. I ran in shorts and short sleeves in Kensington Park and Hyde Park and enjoyed conditions as good as the nicest spring day in San Francisco.
A sense of resignation set in Monday. Though most of Europe was closed to air travel, Madrid was open. Getting there wasn't easy. I know one group of four that hired a taxi in Oxford that took them all the way to Madrid. I believe they left Spain on Monday. I heard of a big-shot Silicon Valley executive who got his sister to Rome, then to Tel Aviv and on to the U.S. I know of a famous consultant who hired a driver to take him to Madrid, where a NetJets plane met him to ferry him back to New York. Most of us sat tight in the hopes the cloud would move on. I took meetings on Monday, including coffee in Mayfair with an investment banker I know, lunch in Covent Garden with Fortune's European publisher, and high tea in Knightsbridge with an old contact from Silicon Valley.
Reports of opening British airports got everyone excited Monday afternoon, only to be followed by despair a few hours later when authorities announced the situation had worsened. Tuesday was a day of scrambling. Over the course of the day I booked or explored the following:
- Taking a Eurostar train to Paris and then renting a car to drive to Madrid, where I had a confirmed flight to Tel Aviv, Philadelphia and San Francisco, as well as waitlist positions on various flights to the U.S.
- Taking a bus to Madrid with various other refugees who were at the Skoll conference, a good option for fleeing London but with uncertainty at the other end in terms of flights and hotels.
- Google chartered a plane out of Madrid for its employees and kindly agreed to take me too. The only problem was that I couldn't make it to Madrid in time once I learned of their generous offer.
- Hoping to get an overnight train Wednesday night from Paris to Madrid but unable to reserve it online, a 24-year-old Greek colleague of my sister's led me sprinting through central London at a quarter to six in the evening Tuesday in the hopes of getting to a rail office that sold tickets. We made it with five minutes to spare, found a long line out the door and a ticketing clerk who said the office was closed.
For all my frenzied efforts to flee, by Tuesday night things were looking up. British Airways had not cancelled my flight for the following morning, something all the airlines have been doing regularly a good 12 to 24 hours in advance. I arrived at a near empty Heathrow at 7:00 a.m. today, four hours before my flight was to depart. I'm getting ready to go to the gate now, a bit nervous about being the guinea pig who'll fly through the ash but excited to see my wife and child tonight in San Francisco. Barring unforeseen problems, my odyssey is nearly over.
Update: My flight landed shortly before 3:00 p.m. PDT in San Francisco. I believe it was the first plane to land here from the U.K., though the immigration official told me Air France and KLM flights from Paris and Amsterdam, respectively, arrived shortly before us. I never saw any ash in the sky, and I still have no idea if we flew through any. It was a gorgeous day in London, and the sky was far more menacing when I landed in California. Shockingly, there were perhaps 100 empty seats on the 747, likely the result of British authorities warning passengers NOT to show up at Heathrow without a confirmed seat. I personally know all sorts of people who would like to have been on that plane today. It's good to be home.