Gesine Adam from Germany had Rs. 100 in her purse on Saturday. A bottle of water at Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport costs Rs. 30. A phone call back home would cost her Rs. 40. Waiting outside the departure terminal, Gesine was among the hundreds of passengers stranded at the airport, after flights to Europe, the U.S. and Canada were grounded owing to vast clouds of volcanic ash over the European airspace.
Gesine and her friend Briggitte Hirschegger from Austria were waiting since Friday night for their Lufthansa flight. “We have no money. The terminal has no Internet connectivity, no restaurants. And, it has a very expensive telephone booth. We had biscuits and water at night. A stay in the Mumbai hotels is expensive, so we slept at the airport. We faced much difficulty just to come out of the airport and breathe fresh air,” she said.
“Our flight was re-scheduled at 6 a.m. on Saturday. But in the morning they told us it's delayed again. We have no food, no water, no information,” said Briggitte, who was travelling with her teenage son.
According to a spokesperson of the Mumbai International Airport Limited (MIAL), 15 departures and nine arrivals were cancelled on Friday night, adding, “Airlines have made necessary arrangements for passengers.”
Praveen Bhupia, a non-resident Indian (NRI) from London and travelling Jet Airways would strongly disagree. He was livid that the airport authorities charged him Rs. 60 for a seat in the waiting area. “I have made my own arrangements. They [airline] have been very unhelpful. There is no help with accommodation. Customer service is zero. I came to India for a holiday; it was a good holiday, until now.”
More than amenities the thing the travellers desired the most was information. Ms. Hirschegger said, “I met a woman from Switzerland whose flight has been delayed by two weeks till May 4. She has to join work on May 3. She is really desperate. She comes here every morning to inquire if there is any seat free anywhere. She pays Rs. 500 for each taxi ride to the airport every day.”
Passengers continued calling the customer support numbers in vain. Many have anxious families and jobs to get back to. An airport staff told The Hindu that the airlines themselves had no information to pass on, unless the update was conveyed from the European and other authorities.
“We have no information. That's the terrible information,” said Martin Cesar from Italy, visiting the city on business, whose Swiss Air flight has been grounded since Friday night. “Looks like most of the European airports are closed still. Hopefully soon we should have some update. When we travel for business, we travel by the minute. Our airline was willing to give us accommodation, but I stayed on our own.”
A staff of a five star hotel in Mumbai helping passengers find accommodation, and who did not wish to be named, said footing the bill for so many passengers would be an expensive affair. The airlines, he said, have refused to pick up the tab stating this was a natural calamity.
Meanwhile, as passengers made a beeline for hotel rooms, hotels are running on full capacity, making it difficult to get accommodation.
Dalela Bouregba from Paris vowed that she would never fly Qatar Airways again. “I spent Friday night shouting just for some sandwiches and a bottle of water. If the flight [at 5 a.m. on Saturday] was cancelled, the airline should have informed us; we would not have come to the airport. Now we cannot go out into the city. We fought for several hours. Everything is expensive here. We slept on the ground. No one is taking care of us. That's why we are upset. Our families back home are worried. We like India, but now we just want to go home,” she said.
Those Rs. 100 in Gesine's purse are on the verge of exhaustion. Like many, she stares at a second night of eating expensive junk food. Having lost her passport in the Kumbh Mela, she has a travel permit which stipulates the limit of her stay in India to April 18. “If I don't leave by then, I have another problem,” she said.