Hundr of air passengers remained stranded in Srinagar on Sunday as its airport was handicapped by outdated operational systems after the city was ravaged by heavy snowfall. Tourism department and police officials said the situation had led to an arbitrary increase in fares by airlines and even “black marketing” of tickets, with local travel agents buying tickets in bulk and selling them at high prices to take advantage of the sudden spurt in demand from stranded passengers keen to fly out of the city as soon as possible.
The valley was cut off from the rest of the country during the snowstorms last week, and the airport was shut down for two days before it reopened on Friday. The Sheikh ul-Alam International Airport, which is owned by the Indian Air Force, has not undertaken even basic upgradation over the years despite various requests, said people aware of the matter.
“It doesn’t have de-icing equipment, which is basic hygiene for an airport at such a location. In winters, airlines operate there at great peril to passengers and aircraft,” said an airline executive, who did not wish to be identified. A senior executive at another airline who also spoke on condition of anonymity said, “Our aircraft have been stuck there for days. The airport staff there uses water sprays for clearing snow from the wings of aircraft, instead of the usual de-icing fluid. That makes it even more dangerous. The airport is essentially meant for day operations but the authorities recently asked airlines to operate some test flights at night so that they can be allowed night landing.” The situation grabbed attention of the authorities after an old woman from the neighbouring district of Shopian, who was among the hundr stranded at the airport, died.
Former Jammu Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah, in a tweet on Saturday, requested the Union minister of state for civil aviation Jayant Sinha to “take a compassionate view” in this matter. “It’s not normally the case for airlines to refuse to carry mortal remains. Your intervention will help a family at the time of great tragedy and I will be personally grateful for your help,” he tweeted. Meanwhile, airlines such as Vistara, Air India and SpiceJet operated additional flights. The civil aviation ministry tweeted on Saturday that 11 extra flights would be flown to and from Srinagar and that two had flown the previous day. It said that “some more, depending on the need, are planned for tomorrow and day after”. “But while many passengers are stranded at the airport, we also had no-shows from passengers who could not make it to the airport from the city. So they are affected both ways,” said an airline executive. “There were fears fuel wouldn’t reach the airport depots for uplift by airlines, but that has been sorted out.”
Some airlines increased fares arbitrarily though, up to as much as Rs 20,000 for a Delhi-Srinagar ticket, while the chief operating officer of Vistara, Sanjiv Kapoor, said in a tweet that the airline had kept fares at or below Rs 12,000.
The state’s tourism department issued strict instructions to airlines on Saturday, telling them to stop selling more than two-three tickets at a time to any travel agent. It urged airlines to cap fares “at reasonable cost” in such situations to avoid “fleecing of poor and needy customers”, and asked local travel agents to put in place a mechanism to stop “black marketing” of tickets.