MIPTV delegates stranded by volcanic ash

Flights grounded throughout Europe in travel chaos

LONDON -- A dense atmospheric cloud of volcanic ash drifting southwards from Iceland has left thousands of MIPTV executives facing travel chaos Thursday, after all British airspace was shut down for the first time in flight history. All U.K. airports were closed because of flight risks to aircraft engines and air supplies from the cloud of dust and glass fragments.

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Hundreds of transatlantic flights have been cancelled and all flights into the U.K. abandoned amid fears that the chaos could spread across Europe. By 2 p.m. GMT Dutch and Belgian airspace had also been shut down, while flights have been grounded in Denmark, Sweden, Finland and France.

Delegates flying home to the U.K. or heading for London-based connecting flights to the U.S., Asia and Australia were left stranded in Nice after the news broke early Thursday that all U.K.-bound flights were cancelled.

Execs are diverting their routes and hoping to catch the Eurostar Paris train service to London by the hundred in a scrabble to get seating on internal flights, coaches and cars, because train services are suspended because of a French train strike. All Thursday Eurostar crossings were reported fully-booked by mid-morning.

Normal service could be delayed until after the weekend as travel companies struggle to cope with widespread delays and meteorologists assess the potential risk as the dust clouds drifts south east potentially affecting Nordic and Scandinavian regions as well.

Flights to North America are routinely routed over Iceland and Greenland, where airspace is likely to be affected.

"We're hearing that it could be Monday for transatlantic flights," said Richard Morse of global animation company Straandlooper. "People are looking into all sorts of scenarios, but in true British fashion it has brought out the Dunkirk spirit," he said, pointing out that execs from different companies were banding together to book travel to Paris.

"By noon, all London-bound flights into Britain were shut down and a line of disgruntleds stretched out from British Airways' help counter at Nice Airport," reported Hollywood Reporter German Bureau chief Scott Roxborough, traveling en route back to Cologne, where flights so far have not been affected.

"BA will be putting up several MIP attendees in hotels and a number were overheard planning Croisette shopping sprees -- grinning and bearing their longer-than-expected Cannes trip," he added.

For some, the crisis has lead to an unexpected opportunity.

"We had about 10 companies headed back today but they were turned back at the airport this morning, and they are all back on the stands taking meetings with stranded buyers," said Dawn Simpson, senior policy executive at U.K. producers guild Pact, which has a stand for U.K. independent producers in the Palais de Festivals.

"Pretty much everyone is stranded and people have their suitcases with them, but the tables are full and meetings we didn't expect are happening because everyone's diaries are free," she said. "There is an upside!"

Execs on the U.K. indie pavilion were banding together to look at coach hires, care hires and other possible routes, but the costs are prohibitive.

Last minute EuroStar seats were selling from between €350-€600 ($406 - $813) before the Thursday and Friday trains were booked up, while a mini-bus hire from Cannes to Paris was costing upwards of €3,000 ($4,050), delegates said.

Organizers Reed Midem said they began early Thursday morning to try and extend hotel stays or relocate delegates and said that by midday around 50% of those affected had opted to stay in Cannes for an extra night.

"We're doing our best to help delegates where they are in difficulties," said Peter Rhodes, managing director of Reed Midem U.K..

"Our travel agents have been working very hard from six o'clock with the hotels and to make sure delayed delegates get charged a reasonable rate."

Rhodes said that many travelers heading for the U.S., Asia and the U.S. had managed to reroute London stopovers via Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Milan in order to continue their journeys.

For those headed home to the U.K., plans to catch the London-bound Eurostar from Gare du Nord in Paris have been further complicated by a strike by French railway operator SNCF, which will carry on over the weekend. By early morning delegates trying to book tickets from Nice to Paris were being told that the handful of remaining services were booked up and that even standing room was no longer available.

"We might end up swimming," quipped one Endemol executive.