Frankfurt horror for Indian passengers

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  • Published 17.04.10

London, April 16: Passengers from Calcutta headed for London yesterday on Air India’s flight 111 via Delhi have had their journey severely disrupted as a consequence of the volcanic ash from Iceland spreading across the skies of northern Europe.

Their flight was diverted to Frankfurt when their aircraft was unable to land at Heathrow after UK air space was closed at noon yesterday.

“At Frankfurt, Indian passengers found they were not allowed to leave the airport to be taken to hotels because they did not have visas for Germany,” a source disclosed.

He added: “I believe this problem was later solved.”

The passengers will have to stay put in Frankfurt until Heathrow starts functioning again but, according to a statement today from Lord Adonis, the British transport minister, “it is likely that significant disruption to most UK air services will continue for at least the next 48 hours – this is an unprecedented situation and the safety of the travelling public is my first priority”.

With Frankfurt now closed, the Indians are now trapped in Germany and cannot return to India, either.

Air India’s flight to Mumbai could not leave Heathrow at 9.45am today because “it’s a turnaround flight and the flight from Mumbai, which should have got in at 7.20am, did not leave India”.

Passengers have been besieging the airline seeking alternative bookings “but there is nothing we can do until we know when the planes can take off again. Some people have been saying there has been an over-reaction by the UK authorities but where safety is concerned, we just cannot take a chance,” the source emphasised.

With the exception of a few flights in Ireland and Scotland, UK air space remained locked down today and would remain so until at least 7am tomorrow. Across Europe, 17,000 of the 28,000 flights that would normally operate very day were cancelled.

Airports in Germany, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland are now partially or completely closed. Around 2,000 people slept overnight at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport.

World leaders hoping to attend the state funeral in Krakow on Sunday of the Polish president Lech Kaczynski, who was among 96 people killed in a plane crash, may be unable to do so unless the event is postponed.

The gloomiest prediction comes from volcanologists who fear the ash from the active Mount Eyjaffjallajokull in Iceland could cause problems to air traffic for up to six months if the eruption continues, but even if it is short-lived the financial impact on airlines could be dire.

Along with Air India, others airlines – British Airways, Jet and Kingfisher among them – have had to suspend their services to Europe, the US and Canada. The chaos is expected to continue for several days after European air space is declared to be safe because many aircraft will be “in the wrong place”, the source told The Telegraph.

“Jet Airways has cancelled all flights to and from London, Brussels, Newark, New York and Toronto and announced an indefinite delay in flights between the above-mentioned destinations,” a spokeswoman for Jet said.

The cloud of ash, which contains glass particles that can cause jet engines to seize in mid-flight, is said to be twice the size of the UK and spreading across Europe. No can even guess how long the volcanic eruption will continue.

“I would think Europe is probably experiencing its greatest disruption to air travel since 9/11,” said a spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority. “In terms of closure of airspace, this is worse than after 9/11. The disruption is probably larger than anything we’ve probably seen.”

Ferry services to Europe are fully booked. Eurostar put on 58 trains to move 46,000 passengers from St Pancras International in London to Paris and Brussels but still could not meet the extra demand for seats.

There have been reports of some airlines refusing to the foot the bill for hotel accommodation for their passengers on the grounds the disruption was not their fault.

They were given a warning by the EU transport commissioner Siim Kallas who said: “In this case, the airports and those responsible for air traffic control have taken very swift and appropriate action to safeguard the public, and there is excellent co-ordination and co-operation at European level, notably within Eurocontrol. But, even in exceptional circumstances, EU passenger rights continue to apply and air travellers should speak up to claim their rights.”

The airlines should cover food and hotels but he added: “In an exceptional circumstance such as this, passengers are not, however, entitled to additional financial compensation that would be the case where delays or cancellations are the fault of the airline.”

Lord Adonis, the British transport minister, took the same line: “My advice to passengers is to contact their airlines. All EU carriers and any airlines operating out of EU airports are obliged to offer passengers either a refund or a re-route, which can include travel by other means, where available. The CAA are closely monitoring the situation to ensure these obligations are being met.”

But the source consulted by The Telegraph said: “Airlines in India have provided hotels for passengers who turned up for check-in which not every airline here (in Europe) is doing.”

One group of Londoners is happy – Indian housewives. Many Indians, who are employed at Heathrow in jobs ranging from baggage handlers to cleaners and immigration officers, live in the area. The housewives say they are enjoying the silence of the skies.