August 22, 2008

Shutdown Jitters Log Out Airport

By Arpit Basu

KOLKATA: On the eve of a very busy day at Kolkata airport - more than 8,500 passengers are booked in Wednesday's flights - chaos reigned at every booking counter in the airport and across the city.

Thanks to Bengal's bandh culture, the Citu-sponsored industrial strike is turning into a total shutdown in Kolkata, grounding every flight supposed to take off after 6 am on Wednesday. Even air traffic controllers, who are exempted from the strike, are afraid of joining duty.

Only Lufthansa announced that it would stick to schedule.

On Tuesday, after newspapers reported Citu's "advice" to fliers not to go to the airport on bandh day, passengers were seen running around, anxiety writ large on their faces, trying to cancel tickets and get fresh bookings. Patients headed for treatment, students going for interviews, businessmen on the verge of deals - no one is spared the harassment.

Be it the Jet Airways city office on Park Street or the Kingfisher ticketing counter beside the departure gate of the airport's domestic terminal, every airline office had long queues. "Since morning, we have been flooded with phone calls and visits from worried passengers. We are having a tough time arranging seats for them on other dates," said an airline official.

With the Airports Authority Employees' Union (AAEU) deciding to join the strike called by the Committee of Public Sector Trade Unions (CPSTU), all flight operations will be stopped after 6 am on Wednesday, sources said.

Airlines are trying to squeeze in a few flights before the clampdown starts. But it's not proving to be easy. Jet Airways has rescheduled its Dhaka flight to 5.30 am on Wednesday. Air India will fly to Mumbai and Port Blair and IndiGO will also operate its Mumbai flights - all before 6 am. Passengers of remaining flights will be accommodated on other dates.

"Thank god, the recent fuel hike has decreased the load factor, helping us to accommodate all our fliers on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. In fact, all flights on Thursday and Friday are 95 per cent full," said a Jet Airways official.

It's small comfort for fliers. S Dutta, who was scheduled to take her mother to Bangalore for treatment on Wednesday, is furious. With great difficulty he had managed to get an appointment with a doctor on Thursday. "We contacted our agent and tried to book fresh tickets on other flights but that would cost us around Rs 7,000 more (for three tickets). We had to change our appointment to Friday as the only option left is to take the AI flight that day," she remarked.

Air traffic controllers find themselves facing the same anxiety as fliers. They fear they might be stopped from entering the airport on Wednesday. They have worked out a roster, which would ensure that all officials enter the airport on Tuesday night and stay till Thursday morning.

"We have been stopped (from working) in the past. We are not taking any risk this time and a team of 60 officials will stay from Tuesday evening till Thursday morning to take care of over-flying flights," an ATC official said. The bandh will turn Thursday into one of the busiest days of the yea. With some spillover from Wednesday's flights, there will be more than 11,000 fliers thronging the airport the next day, a CISF officer said.

(c) 2008 The Times of India. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.