Europe-bound fliers cool heels in Atlanta

The Holmlund and Stenberg families of Stockholm -- two couples and five children between them -- stood amid a small pile of luggage Monday afternoon near the Delta Air Lines international check-in area at Atlanta's airport.

The kids played while the adults talked. Their topic of conversation? How to get confirmed seats somewhere, anywhere closer to home.

"All of Europe is closed," said Reine Holmlund, "Spain and Italy are the only countries we can go to."

It was a similar refrain heard throughout the terminal as hundreds of European travelers grounded by a cloud volcanic ash from Iceland attempted to navigate the labyrinth of air travel.

The predicted delays stretched anywhere from two days to almost two weeks depending on their final destination and other factors, such as flight restrictions and ticket class. While many travelers were frustrated, they also realized only nature is to blame. Despite rising costs, lost wages and concern that the airlines or embassies were not being particularly helpful, both business and pleasure travelers seemed intent on making the best of the situation.

The Holmlund/Stenberg odyssey began with a vacation to Busch Gardens and other attractions in Tampa that should have ended Friday. But upon flying to Atlanta and learning of the delays, they accepted a booking to Montreal, where they thought they could get a quicker connection to Paris. Almost immediately, they realized their mistake. They were unable to continue on to Paris. French citizens, they said, seemed to get preference for available flights.

"We were stuck in Montreal with clothes suited for Tampa. We stayed one night and said, ‘You have to take us back to Atlanta where there are more [travel] options,' " Reine Holmlund, 41, said. The group returned to Atlanta and were issued new tickets by Delta to Stockholm for next Monday, leaving them stuck in the U.S. for a total 10 days with dirty or missing clothing, rising food costs, and hotel fees of which vouchers had only paid about 20 percent.

They hope their respective employers will make some accommodation for lost wages and that they will receive some sort of benefit from their travel insurance, but Monday they just hoped as a gesture of goodwill that Delta would send them back to Florida until next week.

"For the kids' sake," Holmlund said.

Delta spokesman Anthony Black acknowledged many passengers were waiting Monday to get back to Europe. Flights to more European cities could open up as early as Tuesday, he said, including to major airports in the U.K, France and Amsterdam.

"People just want to move closer to their destinations," Black said.

Some travelers sought assistance from their consulates.

"We're thinking we have at least 200 Brits stranded here," said JoAnna Conlon, spokeswoman for the British Consulate General. A national telephone help line had received 2,300 calls from midnight Sunday through 11 a.m. Monday, she said.

The Consulate General couldn't provide monetary aid, she said, but was trying to find discounted hotel rooms for those in need.

"Some have been here for four days. Some airlines will provide hotels but others won't, so we have people sleeping in the airport," she said.

However, John Kennedy, spokesman for the airport said "no passengers have sought our assistance concerning the cancellation of Europe-bound flights."

Victor Meric, 20, of France, who had been to Tampa for two weeks to visit his girlfriend, spent two days sleeping at the airport because he didn't have money to stay in a hotel. His parents eventually managed to wire him money for food and other expenses when his delay stretched to four days.

On Monday, he was scheduled to fly to Madrid where he planned to catch a train to Paris or rent a coach with fellow passengers bound for France. Meric had harsh words for the French Embassy, which he said "didn't do anything," and for the airlines.

"I had some problems with Delta and Air France," he said. "Even if they are doing their best, they should try to do more to help the passengers."

Business traveler Lothar Glaser, 46, was lucky.

After arriving in Atlanta from Mexico City, he spent one night at the local Comfort Inn before getting booked on a Monday night flight to Italy.

"All night and all morning, I didn't believe I was going to get a ticket," said Glaser, general manager of Germany-based Glaser GmBH.

When he did get a confirmed seat, he hugged the agent who made it happen and went to buy her a box of chocolates. Glaser plans to take the train from Italy back to Germany -- an easier route than hoping for a break in Atlanta, he said. As for wages lost, he is lucky he's the boss.

"This time it is okay," Glaser said. "If I were to lose a week, I would lose more money."

-- David Markiewicz, Kelly Yamanouchi and Shelia M. Poole contributed.