Scuffles break out in Moscow airports amid delays

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Scuffles broke out Tuesday at Moscow's two main airports as a third day of major delays prompted Russia to open a probe into how a spell of freezing rain could bring air traffic to a virtual standstill.

Chaos reigned throughout Domodedovo and Sheremetyevo airports as thousands of travellers tried to muscle their way onto the few flights that were finally making their way out of town.

RIA Novosti news agency said that Aeroflot attendants were attacked at Sheremetyevo and AFP reporters saw hundreds trying to shove their way past Domodedovo's passport control as exasperated security officials called the police for help.

"There is absolutely no information and they just keep sending you from one place to another," growled a young man named Dmitry Menyayev.

"People are on the verge of a nervous breakdown," another passenger was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.

The problems are a particular embarrassment for Aeroflot. Russia's flagship carrier now operates out of a state-of-the-art wing of Sheremetyevo and has undertaken enormous efforts to break out of its dowdy Soviet mold.

But state television led its evening news broadcasts with Internet footage of exasperated passengers -- many of them scheduled for one of Aeroflot's 153 cancelled flights -- banging plastic security containers against Sheremetyevo's floor.

The airport blamed the cancellation on a German subcontractor that never provided Sheremetyevo with its regular shipment of de-icing fluid.

Domodedovo -- which became the pride of Russia's air travel after undergoing a futuristic overhaul in 2003 -- also deflected the blame on a power outage that affected not only the airport but also other parts of southeastern Moscow.

Officials at both airports insisted that travel was slowly returning to normal but even the Kremlin seemed startled by the extent of the transportation breakdown.

President Dmitry Medvedev instructed his chief prosecutor to look into the matter and the transportation ministry sent inquiry letters to the managers of both airports as the delays threatened to escalate into a political scandal.

Transportation officials said they were looking into whether proper instructions had been followed by both the airports and the airlines -- including international ones.

But the probes seemed of little concern to the thousands whose winter vacation plans had either been totally ruined or certainly off to a nightmarish start.

An employee for one of the airline labour unions in Sheremetyevo said some pilots had reached the airport for a 10:00 am flight only to have it repeatedly delayed until 7:00 pm.

It was at that point that crew decided to call it a day.

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

But it was the lack of information that appeared to irritate passengers most.

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

A British Airways ticket agent at Domodedovo named Oksana smiled meekly and murmured: "We are trying to help as many people as we can."

Another agent for Transaero stood on her chair and chanted the same two sentences over and over: "We have food vouchers. No flight information at all."

Ainar Kygorov admitted that he probably had been overly optimistic bringing his entire family out to the airport knowing that all flights to his native Bishkek had been either grounded or were experiencing days-long delays.

"The tickets are already paid for and we have people waiting for us," he said. "I do not really know what else we are supposed to do."

© 2010 AFP

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