FRANKFURT, April 20, 2010 (AFP) - "We were supposed to fly back on Sunday," says exhausted German housewife Adelheid Jung, one of about 700 stranded tourists brought back from Spain in special buses to Frankfurt overnight.
Like millions of travellers around the world, Jung's holiday dream in the southern city of Malaga ended with a nightmare, stuck by the volcanic ash cloud spewing from Iceland that grounded all flights back to Germany.
In the end, her only choice was a gruelling 35-hour bus trip of around 2,300 kilometres (1,400 miles), organised and paid for by tour operator TUI.
And despite being ambushed by reporters at the end of the punishing journey, Jung managed to put on a brave face on the situation.
|Passengers wait to complete check-in formalities at Schiphol Airport, near Amsterdam on April 20, 2010. AFP photo|
"We were lucky to get this bus, and then our son-in-law has come to pick us up in his car to take us home to Cologne," she said, steeling herself for the 200-kilometre final stretch.
With 100,000 of its customers stranded, the ash cloud is a financial and logistical catastrophe for TUI, which estimates it is losing almost seven million euros (nine million dollars) every day without flights.
"We've never seen anything like this," said Adi Juen, a TUI staff member in Frankfurt as he handed out bottles of mineral water for the parched passengers trooping off the coaches.
Rather than wait for airspace restrictions to be lifted, TUI decided to begin hauling some of its stranded holidaymakers -- including 20,000 Germans -- back home overland.
German airspace was expected to be closed until at least 1200 GMT Tuesday, although some airlines, notably Lufthansa and Air Berlin have been given special permission to operate flights at low altitudes.
Lufthansa, Europe's biggest airline by passenger numbers, said it would run around 200 flights on Tuesday, with most of its long-haul operations in service.
Air Berlin, Germany's number two, said it was almost back to normal on Tuesday and was able to fly between Germany and the Spanish island of Majorca, a favourite tourist destination for Germans.
Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, named the world's most powerful woman by Forbes magazine, was powerless in the face of the travel chaos caused by the ash cloud.
Returning from a summit in the United States, Merkel was forced to stop over in Lisbon, where she took a flight to Rome, eventually getting back to Berlin via a mixture of coach and armour-plated limousine.
But for ordinary people at Frankfurt station, the nightmare was not yet over.
"We've just missed our train for Hamburg, where we left our car," Bernd Vollertsen, a retired soldier who had spent a week on the Costa del Sol with his wife and some friends, told AFP after his 35-hour journey.
His group were preparing for their third consecutive night in a hotel -- with TUI picking up the tab.
"We've been well treated. Everything has been well organised to welcome us back," he said.
"But now I just want to get home."