28 Dec 2010 13:53

SUMMARY: Russia launches inquiry into flight delays at Moscow airports

MOSCOW. Dec 28 (Interfax) - The Russian authorities have launched an inquiry into the operations of Moscow's airports in the wake of freak weather at the weekend that has left thousands of passengers stranded and delayed hundreds of flights.

The Kremlin's press office said President Dmitry Medvedev had ordered prosecutor General Yury Chaika to launch an inquiry into the operations of the Moscow aviation hub and related enterprises.

Medvedev instructed the prosecutor general's office to check whether companies running the airports and related services had been complying with legislation on air transportation and on passenger emergency services.

The transport prosecutor has also launched an inquiry into the severe flight delays at Moscow's Domodedovo and Sheremetyevo airports.

"The transport prosecutors arrived at the airports to look at the situation on Tuesday," Yevgeny Pospelov, the Moscow prosecutor responsible for air and water transport, told Interfax earlier on Tuesday. "The inquiry is intended to uphold the rights of passengers," he said.

Maria Gridneva, a spokeswoman for the Prosecutor General's Office, told Interfax that the inquiries had begun.

News of the inquiry emerges as Sheremetyevo said it delayed another 57 flights last night, however 119 flights were handled, including 51 departures, the airport said.

A large number of passengers are still unable to fly from Domodedovo.

Moscow's airports and transport in general have been severely disrupted and hundreds of flights delayed by freak weather over the weekend, including freezing rain, which brought power lines to Domodedovo down.

Alexander Neradko, head of the Russian Federal Air Transport Agency (Rosaviatsia), told reporters that electricity supplies to Domodedovo had been restored in full and that all the airport's services were now running normally. Staff numbers have been doubled.

Frustrated passengers were reported to have blocked passport control booths at Sheremetyevo, but the airport denied this.

Many of the delayed passengers are trying to get away on package tours for the long New Year holidays. Sheremetyevo said it had accommodated passengers with children in VIP lounges and was offering them free essentials such as hot and cold drinks, food and nappies.

Tour operators said as of around 11 a.m. that they thought Sheremetyevo would get back to normal as early as today, but that it would take Domodedovo longer.

"Sheremetyevo has started to dispatch flights fairly regularly and the situation is gradually getting back to normal," Ilya Itkin, director of the Pak Group, told Interfax.

Itkin said the situation at Domodedovo was still verging on chaos, and that half of the airport was still without lighting.

"I don't think Domodedovo will get back to normal flight mode today, but they might cope with this over the next couple of days," he said, adding that the problem was that there was still no full electricity supply and thins were being done manually, and very slowly.

An Interfax correspondent said from the airport that passengers at Domodedovo were unable to get information about flights and that airline representatives were accusing the airport administration of being incapable of organizing departures.

A representative of British Airways told Interfax Tuesday morning that flight BA873 was ready to depart for London yesterday, but has been unable to do so because ground services are unable to get passengers and their luggage on board.

Vnukovo, Moscow's third international airport, has been coping fine, with only slight delays even on Sunday, although it operates fewer flights, tour operators say. The airport itself confirmed it was working smoothly, but that there were some delays on Tuesday because it was accepting flights from Domodedovo.

Pak Group's Itkin said the problem was not just one of ice, but "inability to react to non-standard situations." "It takes a long time to prepare planes for takeoff, at least an hour and a half, and the whole chain of flights is disrupted. Services are not operating very smoothly at either [Domodedovo or Sheremetyevo]".

Yelena Turina, spokeswoman for the Russian Tour Industry Union, told Interfax that Domodedovo was having to handle luggage manually and in near darkness, and this, too, was delaying flights. Some passengers that have managed to depart are getting to their destinations, for example ski resorts, ahead of their luggage, she said.

Yelena Galanova, spokeswoman for Domodedovo, told Interfax that the situation at the airport was slowly returning to normal, but that it would not be business as usual until the early hours of Thursday. She said the airport had accepted almost 80 flights and dispatched 90 between midnight and midday Tuesday. It expects to handle 350 flights today. Some 8,000 people are at the airport, and 4,000 are in the passenger compounds awaiting boarding.

The Transaero airline, which is based at Domodedovo, said it had dispatched all passengers who had been due to fly on Sunday and Monday and had reduced delays to 4 hours.

The situation with Aeroflot flights has been compounded largely by a total lack of information he said.

Passengers departing from Sheremetyevo said the situation at Terminals D and F, which were at a standstill yesterday was getting back to normal, although fight did break out among some passengers at Terminal D.

A source in law enforcement agencies, however, told Interfax that law and order had not been breached at either Sheremetyevo or Domodedovo.