Air schedules go haywire, affecting passengers, relatives

CHENNAI: Having arrived early enough to take a 6.30 a.m. flight to Madurai on Wednesday, two State Ministers thought that they had enough time to finish off their work — attending a few marriages, meeting partymen, meeting with representatives of trade associations — before spending Pongal day with their families in their hometowns.

On paper, the plan looked good. But the plane did not take off; nor did any other flight out of Chennai for the next three hours. And, among those waiting for flights to take off were the Chief Secretary, a few industrialists and thousands of passengers. A few passengers cursed ‘bhogi’ and those who burnt tyres, even as they uttered a prayer and impatiently waited for their flights to take off.

At the international terminal, even more uncertainty greeted those who had come to pick up their family and relatives. In the absence of any announcements on the situation at the airport, the arrival and departure display boards were the only source of information.

The boards merely mentioned that the first few flights between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. — Oman Air flight from Muscat (WY 251), Saudi Arabian Airlines (SV 772) and Air Emirates (EK 544 – 8.10 am) — were delayed. The display board kept the story on till past 9 a.m.

Hundreds of relatives hovered around uncertainly even as at around 9.15 am, the airport made the first announcement of diversion of Oman Air flight to Bangalore. “Who do I ask when they will come?” asked a 60-year-old man from Cuddalore. He had come — with his family — to pick up his son, arriving from Muscat.

The construction work going on at both the international and domestic terminals made access to information booths difficult. Many others, like R.Sundaram from Kancheepuram, preferred to wait for the flight to land. “They have to land it sometime, right?” Someone next to him introduced him to the concept of flight diversions.

When he later learnt that the Emirates flight had landed in Bangalore, he wanted to know: “And now will it again land here?” The display board had an interesting story about the Emirates flight. A little after 10 a.m., the status said: “Diverted.” At 10.17 a.m., the status was reverted to “Delayed.” A few minutes later, it became “Diverted” again. Sources said that the pilot had informed the control that he needed to refuel and sought permission to land in Bangalore. The flight finally arrived Chennai past noon, about four hours behind schedule.

The four-hour delay meant problems for Emirates — as also for most other delayed flights. Emirates — and most Gulf destinations — operated turnaround flights which returned to base within the mandatory eight-hour period after which crews need to be rested. The delay meant that a fresh set of crew had to be found even as restless passengers departing Chennai, in the security check area, wanted to know the status of the return flight, EK 545.

Every agency at the airport was stretched to its limits as the airport bunched flight take-offs and landings. In addition to handling arriving passengers,

Customs officials were straddled with those coming to claim lost luggage too. A team of officials worked non-stop to clear passengers arriving with dutiable goods. “We know the passengers are tired and just want to get to their places. We are here to facilitate as long as they made the correct declarations,” said one. For passengers travelling trans-Atlantic, it was a day they would rather forget. “It’s over. It’s over. Let us not talk about it,” said one tired passenger.