Students stranded in Europe plan to fly home this week

Some of the half dozen Palo Alto High School students stranded in Europe have scheduled flights home, after volcanic eruptions in Iceland forced mass flight cancellations, according to Principal Jacqueline McEvoy.

While the students’ absences will be excused by the school, it is unclear whether the state will do the same, McEvoy said.

Following a series of frustrating cancellations, senior Michelle Mastromatteo was able to purchase a seat on Air Canada to arrive home by Friday night from Geneva.

“I got a flight for Friday on Air Canada but it was really expensive,” Mastromatteo wrote in an e-mail. “I’m going from the Geneva International Airport to Frankfurt, Germany, then to the Toronto Pearson Airport and finally to San Francisco. Basically I’m leaving at 7 a.m. in Geneva–which is Thursday 11 p.m. in California time–and arriving home at 8:30 p.m. It’s insane.”

Senior Sophie Biffar also has a flight to San Francisco scheduled to arrive on Friday from Amsterdam, though she had to take multiple trains in an attempt to book a flight out of Europe this week.

“We took a train from Edinburgh to London, where we stayed one night and then took the Eurostar train to Brussels and finally to Amsterdam on Monday,” Biffar wrote in an e-mail. “Right now we are scheduled for a flight to San Francisco on Friday.”

United Airlines automatically re-booked sophomore Aaron Zelinger’s flight from Rome to Thursday.

“We tried to leave Sunday morning, but because of the volcano we were not able to do so,” Zelinger wrote in an e-mail. “United re-booked us automatically on Thursday, but we had to purchase new tickets from Sicily to Rome through an Italian airline. We hope the flight is not canceled.”

Mastromatteo and Biffar were staying in Europe with family members, so they said resolving their flight situation wasn’t too complicated. Though Zelinger traveled without his parents, he and sophomore Michael Kori were training with an Italian water polo team and stayed with a member of that team. All four students had no trouble finding accommodations for their extended stay.

Students’ absences due to the flight delays will be excused, according to McEvoy.

“We know where these students are so it’s not a truancy or cut,” McEvoy said. “It’s kind of an interesting situation because this is a natural disaster and nobody can control it. The absences will be excused by the school but it’s not the same as an illness; it’ll probably be labeled as an Administrative Excuse.”

Although Paly will excuse the absences, McEvoy said that it is unclear whether the state of California will consider them to be excused.

“The general policy is that if it [an absence] doesn’t fall within a certain category, then the state says that you should have been in school,” McEvoy said. “We don’t know what the state will decide about this particular case yet.”

However, even if the state decides that they are unexcused, the absences will have no effect on students’ attendance record and only a negligible effect on school funding, according to McEvoy.

“Technically, we do lose some funding for every unexcused absence, but because we are a basic aid district that does not rely on state funding, it wouldn’t really impact our school budget,” McEvoy explained.

Most teachers are applying their policies for excused absences to these students.

“I’m going to handle it like an excused absence,” science teacher Kenyon Scott said. “Students will be given the number of days that they missed to make up the work.”

Despite e-mail communication with their teachers and peers, students said they have had difficulties making up schoolwork abroad.

“I’ve e-mailed all of my teachers but without any textbooks, there isn’t a lot they can do for me,” Mastromatteo said.

Zelinger added, “For homework, I am just using InClass and Facebook to try to talk to classmates and figure out what I am missing, but sadly there’s not much I can do for most classes.”

However, Mastromatteo, Biffar, and Zelinger said they are grateful that they will most likely not miss prom, which will take place this Saturday on a boat from Hornblower Cruise.

“I thought I was going to miss prom and I was pretty mad because it’s my senior year prom and I feel like I have to be there,” Mastromatteo said. “I haven’t gotten my dress fitted yet so that’s kind of worrying.”

Students said they feel that the initial flight cancellations were reasonable.

“The cancellation of these flights is reasonable,” Zelinger said. “I would much rather stay a couple days in a foreign country or airport than risk dying because volcanic ash melted the engine of my plane.”

However, after several low-altitude test flights have been conducted without major issue, some think that the ban is unnecessary.

“Now after so many test flights have been flown, I think it is ridiculous to keep all the airports closed,” Biffar said. “Everything is very unclear and unorganized.”

Airlines such as Lufthansa of Germany and KLM of the Netherlands completed successful test flights on Sunday, reporting no damage on their planes, according to the New York Times. However, uncertainty about how to properly analyze tolerance levels of aircraft to volcanic ash kept flights grounded.

Great Britain gradually began to allow flights from some of its airports late Tuesday night, making roughly 75 percent of the airspace over Europe open, according to Eurocontrol, the Brussels-based agency that coordinates air-traffic management across the region. It further stated that all European airspace is open to traffic above elevations of 20,000 feet, enabling intercontinental overflight traffic to resume.

The volcanic ash cloud spreading from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano has highly abrasive, microscopic particles that decrease visibility and jam airplane engines, causing malfunction, according to the New York Times. The ash can also block pitot tubes that supply such vital instruments as air speed indicators.

This is not the first time that a volcanic eruption has halted air transportation, but eruptions typically strike areas of thin air traffic, such as Alaska, Indonesia and the Philippines, Gideon Ewers, spokesman for the International Federation of Airline Pilots Associations, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

As of late Tuesday, more than 95,000 flights have been canceled, Eurocontrol stated.

Despite flight delays, Mastromatteo tried to lighten the situation with her sense of humor.

“I think the worst thing about this whole situation is that nobody can even pronounce the name of the volcano,” Mastromatteo joked.

(Apparently, National Public Radio had the same issue.)