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10 Knoch students return to U.S. after snow traps them in Germany

A Lufthansa aircraft parked at the snow-covered Munich airport in Germany
A Lufthansa aircraft is parked at the snow-covered Munich airport, Germany, Saturday, Dec. 2. Munich’s airport has canceled all flights for the day after a winter storm dumped snow across southern Germany and parts of Austria and Switzerland, affecting travel across the region. Trains to and from Munich’s central station were also halted, Germany’s national railway said, advising passengers to delay or reroute their journeys. Associated Press

A group of students from Knoch High School left for a foreign exchange trip to Munich, Germany on Nov. 11, as part of a partnership with the FOS/BOS Weiden school. After weeks of touring the best of what Bavaria had to offer, they were scheduled to come home on Thursday, Nov. 30.

Instead, the traveling party of 15 — 10 students, two teachers, and three family members of one student — were blindsided by a blizzard which dropped a foot and a half of snow on Munich, paralyzing the region.

It wasn’t until Wednesday, Dec. 6 — nearly a month after they left — when the group set foot on American soil again. In the days spent waiting for the weather to wane, they went from one hotel to another and were rebooked onto flight after flight.

Knoch High School principal Todd Trofimuk, who organizes the foreign exchange program, described the storm as a “once in a century” occurrence.

“From my understanding, in talking to the principal of the school in Germany, this was a once-in-a-lifetime blizzard,” said Trofimuk, whose son, Kannon, was one of the students on the trip. “Everything was shut down. There were power outages.”

“That is tremendous for them; they’re not used to it at all,” said Jennifer Webb, communications manager for the Knoch School District. “And so it created just enormous challenges.”

After their initial flight home on Nov. 30 was canceled, the party of 15 stayed at a hotel for one night before shifting to a second hotel, where they stayed for five nights, when they finally departed.

During this time, according to Trofimuk, the group was rebooked on at least four different flights. At one point, the group made it onto a plane that was preparing to take off before it was delayed by snow on the runway.

“Because of all the snow and the delays and trying to clear the runway and things like that, the pilot got on and said that because of FAA regulations, he had too many hours,” Trofimuk said. “So they had to disembark.”

Compounding the group’s problems, much of their luggage was already checked at Munich Airport and no longer in their possession. When they went back to their hotel, all they were left with was their carry-on bags.

Toward the end of the stay, it was suggested that the group return to the U.S. from Frankfurt Airport instead of Munich, as Frankfurt received less snow than Munich. The group would, theoretically, take a train from Munich to Frankfurt first.

This plan did not materialize, as the weather impacted Germany’s rail system as well.

“After the snow started to subside, there was freezing rain that shut the trains down as well,” Trofimuk said. “So they were rebooked again for (Wednesday’s) flight to get out.”

Eventually, on Wednesday, the snowbound Knoch group boarded a flight to Newark Liberty Airport, which got off the ground. From there, after a four-hour layover, the group split up and took two separate flights back to Pittsburgh.

It remains to be seen whether the weary travelers will see their luggage again.

“Some luggage may come through,” Trofimuk said. “If not, they have to file a claim to get their lost luggage returned, and then the airlines will ship it to the house.”

The families of the students paid for the trip to Germany. According to Trofimuk, the families will not have to pay extra for any flights that did not leave the ground.

“When it gets rebooked, you don’t have to pay for a new ticket,” Trofimuk said. “It's just taking that ticket and transferring it to another flight, to another flight, to another flight.”

The Knoch party is far from alone in having their plans disrupted by the Munich blizzard.

In all, according to FlightRadar24, the snow led to the cancellation of 2,772 flights out of Munich Airport.

The first leg of the school exchange happened this September, when a group of students from the FOS/BOS school came to Saxonburg.

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