x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

UAE airlines offer refunds as ash cloud wreaks havoc on travel

Thousands of planes were grounded across Europe for a second day after Wednesday's volcanic eruption in Iceland.

DUBAI // Thousands of planes were grounded across Europe for a second day after Wednesday's volcanic eruption in Iceland. Tens of thousands of passengers attempting to pass through, depart from or return to the UAE have been affected by the disruption, which is having worldwide repercussions. A spokesman for Dubai International Airport said there were 50 flight cancellations yesterday and more could be on the way today.

"The ash cloud caused by volcanic activity in Iceland has expanded into northern Europe," the spokesman said. "The UK, Denmark, Ireland and Norway have closed their airspace. The ash is threatening additional airspace closures in France, Sweden, Belgium, Russia and Germany." This is the most drastic event to affect aviation in the region in decades, Richard Vaughan, Emirates Airline's divisional senior vice president of commercial operations worldwide, said yesterday morning.

"Maybe there was a slight lull with 9/11," he said. "But it's the first time Britain has been closed since World War II. It's a dramatic disruption." Yesterday, Emirates grounded all 14 of its flights destined for the UK, as well as seven bound for Germany and two for Paris. Overall, the disruption has affected 18,000 passengers travelling with the airline, said Mr Vaughan. Oliver Campbell, 32, was due to fly back to the UK via Emirates yesterday afternoon from Dubai. He had just enjoyed a nine-day holiday in the Maldives with his wife, Monica.

"It's difficult to be annoyed because they can't do anything about it," he said, from a hotel near the airport. "It took us 90 minutes to get through passport control, but there are worse places to be stranded." Emirates had so far cancelled more than 30 flights yesterday and stopped passengers from boarding UK-bound flights that stopped in Dubai after leaving places such as the Maldives and Sydney.

The airline had booked about 3,500 hotel rooms in the vicinity of Dubai International Airport, and Mr Vaughan estimated that the situation was costing US$1 million (Dh3.67m) per day in accommodation alone. But that was little consolation to grumpy passengers seeking answers in Dubai yesterday - some of whom believed they were falling through the cracks. As early as 6.30am, Andrew Davis, from London, stood in line with hundreds of other weary travellers at the Emirates information desk in Terminal Three.

"This is the second time I am queuing because I understand Emirates were giving out food vouchers and arranging hotel accommodation, but I was given nothing earlier," he said. The teacher from London, who was in Dubai for a five-day holiday, checked out of his hotel room in Deira only to be told by an Emirates official that he should have stayed. "I would like to know why some people who have the same type of ticket are entitled to a hotel and I am not," he said.

At Abu Dhabi International Airport, an attendant said they had no idea when the next available flights to London would be. Pierre Colangelo, a 48-year-old procurement manager from Canada, whose 2am flight to Frankfurt was cancelled, said he would spend all night trying to find a way to get to Germany. "I was here on a business trip and I need to be back in the office on Monday. My office told me it is much easier for them to get me back to Canada from Frankfurt than from Abu Dhabi."

Etihad Airlines had cancelled 19 flights and diverted three others on on Thursday and yesterday, disruptions that directly affected 5,000 passengers bound for Europe. Two flights were diverted to Geneva, where the airline was arranging alternative ground transportation for people in a hurry. Airline staff were also attending to more than 500 passengers put up in several Abu Dhabi hotels, said Peter Baumgartner, the chief commercial officer for Etihad.

Although it was impossible to know for sure, Mr Baumgartner said officials received information yesterday afternoon that weather patterns could begin to clear the air for planes to fly by tomorrow. That would enable Etihad to clear its backlog of passengers by the beginning of the week. Both Emirates and Etihad said they were offering refunds for people who choose not to travel, as well as accommodating passengers in transit until flights to their final destination could be booked. They were also waiving rebooking and cancellation fees.

Etihad pointed customers to its customer help line, at 800 550 5, while Emirates advised checking its website, www.emirates.com, for regular updates. eharnan@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Anealla Safdar and Haneen Dajani