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Mission impossible: Escape from Europe

VIENNA – Stranded travelers are piling into buses, trains and high-priced taxis in a frantic scramble to accomplish an increasingly tricky mission: Escape from Europe.

Spain was becoming a dream destination not for its beaches and monuments but simply by virtue of the fact it’s one of the few European countries unaffected by the ash cloud drifting across the continent from an Icelandic volcano.

Monstrous lines filled the departure terminals at Madrid’s Bajaras Airport as people sought a chance to flee – and tempers were fraying.

“I am on the standby list and I am homeless right now,” said Roberta Marder, 73, from Tulsa, Okla. “I am here fighting in the line and trying to get a ticket.”

Many people arrived with stories of grueling road trips to get to Madrid.

Doug Hahn, 36, from Portland, Ore., was settling into his seat Thursday on a New York-bound plane in Amsterdam when the flight was canceled. He and three other stranded travelers rented a car and drove to Madrid – a 16-hour road journey.

It was $808, split three ways – a “good deal” for Hahn, who said the car company initially wanted $2,155 for the one-way rental. He managed to get a ticket for a Miami flight later in the day.

On Monday, Spain offered to let Britain and other European countries use its airports as stopovers to get tens of thousands of passengers stranded by the volcanic ash traveling again.

With flying conditions uncertain, only a fraction of the continent’s airports were operating. Eurocontrol, the continental air authority said airlines in Europe were expected to fly only between 8,000 and 9,000 of their 28,000 scheduled flights Monday – mostly from southern Europe.

A German rental agency Sunday was asking for more than $1,400 for a car one-way from Belgrade, Serbia, to Munich, while another firm demanded $2,500 for a Madrid to Brussels rental. In Stockholm, Magnus Klintback, a spokesman for the Swedish firm Taxi Kurir, said about 50 clients had willingly paid prices of up to $5,000 to different European destinations from which they had a chance to fly home.

Legions of other travelers were simply stranded.

At Frankfurt Airport, one of continental Europe’s biggest hubs, airport spokesman Uwe Witzel said that almost 500 passengers – most of them from Africa or Asia with no visas for the EU – were spending their fourth day in the transit area.

Witzel said the stranded were provided with three meals a day, showers and fresh clothing as needed.

“We’ve set up an Internet lounge, we’ve hired people to entertain the kids and we’ve also arranged a spot outside the terminal building where people can go to get a breath of fresh air and some sun,” he said.

In Austria, authorities lifted flight bans early Monday, buoying travelers’ spirits. Officials said that approximately 65 flights had left by noon.

But most were within Europe. Austrian Airline officials said the only two transcontinental flights possible later in the day were to Beijing and Bangkok.

Attinchat Apirukkunwong won’t be on either.

“I am still patient now, but probably not for much longer,” said the Bangkok native, his face strained by the fatigues of a European vacation gone awry. He said he was hoping for a flight back home via a Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul.

For Greg Moncada, flying was a professional imperative – he had scheduled job interviews on the U.S. West Coast.

“I’m trying to get to Seattle,” said Moncada, high school principal at Vienna’s American International School. “I have to be there tomorrow.”

The ash also caused diplomatic headaches.

President Barack Obama was forced to miss the Polish president’s weekend funeral, while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called off a scheduled trip to Finland.

Stranded Europeans trying to get home were also affected.

At Incheon International Airport in South Korea, about 30 frustrated passengers blocked a Korean Air ticketing counter and demanded a meeting with company officials to arrange travel to anywhere in Europe after they heard an Air France jet flew from the airport to the French city of Bordeaux.

They held up a makeshift sign saying, “We want to come back home,” each word written on a separate piece of paper.

“We need a flight, we need a time,” Thierry Loison, who has been stuck since Friday at Incheon on the way back to France after a vacation in Bali, said to Korean Air officials. “We were like animals this morning.”