Russia opens probe as airport chaos sparks protests

28th December 2010, Comments 0 comments

Russian prosecutors launched a probe Tuesday into how bad weather left thousands stranded at Moscow's two largest airports as exasperated passengers staged protests over the chaos.

Freezing weather and power outages left over 200 flights delayed at Moscow's Domodedovo and Sheremetyevo over the last three days, with some passengers resorting to protests in security check areas.

Prosecutors have opened an investigation into the massive delays aimed to "protect the rights of passengers," Moscow transportation prosecutor Yevgeny Pospelov told Interfax.

Ironically, the chaos was caused not by a cold snap but unseasonably warm weather which meant that torrential freezing rain, rather than snow, fell at the weekend, leaving a treacherous layer of ice on roads and runways.

Passengers in Domodedovo were suffering from lack of ventilation, irregular water supply in airport bathrooms and power outages, a passenger told Interfax Tuesday.

"People are on the verge of a nervous breakdown," she said, adding that airlines had to call extra security due to passengers' anger.

Power was restored in Domodedovo on Tuesday after a complete shutdown over the weekend caused by a break in powerlines that were weighed down by ice following the freezing rain.

Airport officials promised all delayed flights would take off by Tuesday afternoon despite the continued chaos.

Food supplying companies reported some racketeering from unknown men who demanded to purchase their supply of drinking water.

"They blocked us from driving up to the airport," a company employee told Interfax.

A bottle of water was being sold for up to 500 rubles (16 dollars) in airports, passengers wrote on blogs, while taxi drivers demanded up to 10,000 rubles (300 dollars) for a 40 minutes drive to the capital.

In a rare display of public anger in Russia, a YouTube video from Sheremetyevo showed hundreds of passengers sitting on the floor and banging the blue plastic containers in the security area and chanting "Shame!"

Airport security staff were seen looking on with bemusement but doing nothing to halt the protest.

Sheremetyevo director Mikhail Vasilenko blamed the weather for disruption, saying on his blog that the ice increased the time to de-ice the planes from 20 minutes to one and a half hours.

But angry commentators said the airport was at fault for not providing a boarding ramp to paramedics for over an hour when an ambulance was called for a little girl with a heart condition.

"If we were in the US, you would be sued while the rest (of the airport) staff burned on a pile of trash without even a lawsuit!" blogger Sergey Chaplygin wrote to Vasilenko after describing the incident.

Some pilots had reached the airport for a 10:00 am flight only to have it repeatedly delayed until 7:00 pm, after which they refused to fly, said an employee of one of the airline labor unions in Sheremetyevo.

"One crew spent seven hours inside the plane," he said, "and a pilot's workday is only 12 hours after passing a medical check."

Though skies were clear on Tuesday, some passengers were still waiting departure since Sunday. "People are waiting for two or three days and cannot even get information" one Sheremetyevo passenger exclaimed, Channel One television reported.

Lack of information appeared to be the main concern as hundreds of people clustered around information stands and shouting to get attention from airline staff while others napped on makeshift beds fashioned out of luggage carts.

"OMON (riot police) are watching over our office, passengers are forcing their way in, and there is still no information," wrote Sheremetyevo employee Anastasiya Dunayeva on her Twitter.

Many were waiting for over 24 hours after passing security check. A fight broke out in one of the terminals after airport staff redirected people from one gate to another multiple times, delaying each time, Interfax reported.

© 2010 AFP

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