x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Day begins in hope and ends with frustration

Those hoping to fly between the UAE and Europe have a difficult day as some airspace opens, then ash cloud closes in again.

Travellers stranded in Abu Dhabi were given special tours of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque yesterday.
Travellers stranded in Abu Dhabi were given special tours of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque yesterday.

The day began with optimism as a specially arranged KLM flight from Amsterdam landed in Dubai early yesterday morning. It was the first arrival from western Europe since the volcano-ash crisis began last week. But for every relieved passenger who secured a flight to or from a recently opened airport, seemingly dozens of others faced the weary prospect of journeys again delayed as several European countries closed their airports after briefly reopening them.

At Abu Dhabi International Airport, no commercial flights from Europe arrived during the day. Only one bound for Europe took off, British Airways Flight 72 for London Heathrow, which was last night expected to be diverted to a Scottish airport. In Dubai, flight KL429, a Boeing 747 carrying 275 passengers, landed in an almost deserted Terminal 1 at 4.36am, with only a handful of people and several limousine drivers with name cards waiting outside the arrivals gate.

One passenger, Emad Saher, a Jordanian businessman who had been stranded in Amsterdam since last week, was thrilled to return to Dubai. "I was only meant to stay for two days and then all this happened and I was stuck," he said. "It's been very frustrating not knowing exactly when you can come home, and it was quite costly, too, as I was paying for my accommodation." Responding to overnight news that airports in countries including France, Italy and the UK were gradually reopening, hundreds of people lined up in the Dubai airport's Terminal 3 from as early as 3.30am in the hope of taking to the skies.

Simon Earnshaw, 33, was hoping to return to the UK to be with his wife, who is expected to give birth within the next few days. "It's been a long, tense wait but hopefully I can get a flight to somewhere in the UK and I can work my way home," he said yesterday morning. Gail Hodgkins, also from the UK, arrived at Dubai airport in darkness in the hope of securing a flight home. "We don't know when or how we are going to get home but we are just lining up to see," she said.

Assia Rehman, a 30-year-old Briton, was feeling lucky yesterday afternoon as she waited for her afternoon Emirates flight to Manchester. But the flight was cancelled about 10 minutes before it was to leave. She and other passengers were taken to a hotel in Deira. "Nobody really knows what's happening," she said. "Some people who have been stranded here for a few days say they can't get a flight until the 16th of May. But everyone is all over the place."

Representatives of several hotels said they are doing their best to accommodate customers caught out by the ash. The Rotana Hotel Management Corporation said it was seeing a "significant increase in our occupancies in Abu Dhabi and Dubai properties, especially in properties next to the airport", with an average increase of 10 per cent occupancies. Tim Clark, the Emirates Airline president, yesterday provided insight into the impact of the rapidly changing situation. About 20 per cent of the airline's fleet has been grounded with the disruption costing the airline about US$66 million (Dh242m) so far. About 3,800 Emirates passengers were still stranded in Dubai yesterday.

Mr Clark said that by midnight on Monday the airline had "mapped the opening of European airspace", with plans for flights to resume to the UK and Germany, and others bound for airports in Italy and France. "The crews were alerted, the passengers were being brought at a certain time to check in to travel on those flights," he said. "We thought we would be in good shape." But at 2.30am yesterday he received a call that threw the plans into doubt as German and British authorities reviewed their decision to reopen airspace after a new cloud of volcanic debris spread.

Emirates flights to the UK scheduled to leave yesterday morning for London, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Newcastle were cancelled. Uncertainty remained as to when some parts of UK airspace would open up and if other areas, such as over Italy, would close again. "It's this kind of situation which makes it very difficult for us to operate long-haul aircraft with this number of passengers on the basis of 'maybe it will happen, maybe it will not'," Mr Clark said.

However, some Europe-bound Emirates flights did take to the skies yesterday, with planes going to France, Switzerland and Italy. Flights to Germany were re-routed to Zurich and Vienna, allowing a "few thousand" stranded passengers to move on from Dubai yesterday. "We have to move the people out, they've been here long enough and Emirates is anxious to get them to as close to their destination as possible," Mr Clark said.

He added that the airline would not look to recoup financial losses by raising prices when the situation returns to normal. In Abu Dhabi, the disruption provided an opportunity for some passengers to explore the Sheikh Zayed Mosque. Kiara Holts, a 32-year-old German who works for the UN, had been on holiday in Australia and was returning to Frankfurt via Abu Dhabi. She said Yas Hotel, where she was given accommodation, received an e-mail from the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority yesterday informing them that special tours had been set up.

"They said they will be offering extra tour hours and a free bus. The hotel people were amazed because this never happens usually," she said. "I learned Arabic six years ago, so I've always been passionate about the Arab culture. But I never got a chance to travel to an Arab country, and now it just happened by chance." * The National, with reporting by Eugene Harnan, Haneen Dajani, Ali Khaled, Zoi Constantine, Matthew Chung