Frustrated passengers try to rest, amend plans as flights diverted, delayed due to fire

Even before dawn broke on Tuesday, the grill just outside Chennai airport’s arrival terminal had dozens of people leaning on it, restlessly moving up and down as they searched for those they had come to pick up.

Hours later, they were still there, waiting.

A fire, which broke out around 2.20 a.m. at the Air Traffic Control complex, affected dozens of flights, forcing airport authorities to divert arrivals to Bangalore and Hyderabad and leaving hundreds of passengers stranded within the airport, as most departures — mainly international — were delayed by between three and six hours.

As visits to family, business conferences and holiday plans went for a toss, tired and frustrated passengers slept on their luggage trolleys, milled about the premises or attempted to read.

Joseph Balaraj’s family of four was returning from their four-day holiday in Colombo in good spirits, but the five-hour delay of their flight deflated their holiday high. The flight, which was supposed to leave Colombo at 3 a.m., took off only at 7.55 a.m. and reached Chennai at 9.15 a.m., said 54-year-old Balaraj.

“We boarded much later than our original departure time and then had to sit inside the aircraft for more than two hours. It was only sheer luck that we didn’t miss our train to Hyderabad, which is in a few hours,” he said.

Nethaji Subhash Chandra Bose, who works in a financial firm, arrived at the airport at 9 a.m. sharp to pick up his colleague flying in from New Delhi to attend a meeting at 10 a.m. “It’s well past 10.30 a.m. now and he still hasn’t arrived, so we had to reschedule the meeting,” he said.

Others like S. Chitra, a marketing professional had to cancel their flights and plans.

“I had to cancel my flight to Tiruchi as it was delayed by over two hours. I was supposed to attend a meeting there but I was told the flight would not take off until 12 p.m. There is no point in my travelling then, as I will miss the meeting,” she said.

Flights delayed included those of Emirates, Air Arabia, Sri Lankan Airlines and Air India. Six departure delays had a cascading effect on 13 more departing flights to destinations including Dubai, Colombo, Sharjah and New Delhi. 

This is not the first time an airport in the country has faced this. Sources said similar incidents have taken place at the Mumbai and New Delhi airport towers too. In Mumbai, batteries of the uninterrupted power supply system caught fire in 2007.

A few months ago, a similar fire disrupted air traffic in New Delhi.

Batteries of uninterrupted power supply systems should be kept separately in a room with proper ventilation facilities to avoid such accidents, officials familiar with the operation said.

A senior AAI official said the situation had been brought under control in about two-and-a-half-hour. As soon as the fire broke out, air traffic controllers in Chennai transferred control of flights to the lower area centres in Thiruvananthapuram, Mangalore, Bangalore and Hyderabad, to maintain the smooth flow of air traffic, he said.


Fire in ATC tower disrupts flight servicesMarch 12, 2013

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