BANGKOK: Thousands of travellers were left scrambling on Thursday when Thai Airways International cancelled more than a dozen flights to and from Europe after Pakistan closed its airspace amid rising tensions with India.
Flights to and from London, Munich, Paris, Brussels, Milan, Vienna, Stockholm, Zurich, Copenhagen, Oslo, Frankfurt and Rome had been scheduled to fly over Pakistani airspace on Thursday, Thai Airways said in a statement.
That left passengers scheduled to leave Thailand's main Suvarnabhumi International Airport searching to find alternative flights. Most of the airline's European flights leave after midnight.
"Last night there were about 5,000 passengers who came to check-in but unable to fly, mostly Thai Airways," Colonel Umnart Chomshai, superintendent of tourism police at Suvarnabhumi Airport, told Reuters.
Another airport official said a help centre had been set up for stranded travellers.
HELP FROM CHINA
Thai Airways said on Thursday it has resumed flights to Europe, after China granted permission to use its airspace for nearly a dozen flights to Europe scheduled to leave on Thursday afternoon and Friday morning.
"THAI is pleased to announce that normal flight operations to Europe is now resumed through airspace outside Pakistan’s," the airline said on Facebook.
"THAI received permission from the authority to operate its flights through the airspace of the Republic of China," it said, citing Flight Lieutenant Pratana Patanasiri, vice president of the aviation safety, security and standards department for Thai Airways.
However, it said all flights to and from Pakistan were cancelled. The airline operates one flight a day to Karachi and Lahore and four flights per week to Islamabad.
Flights from Bangkok to Muscat will resume, skipping its usual stopover in Karachi.
"Passengers who hold tickets on the routes affected by flight cancellation may change their itineraries. Fees and charges will be exempted, and conditions apply."
"YOU HAVE TO WAIT"
Frustration mounted on Thursday at Bangkok's main airport at the sudden delays.
"We have waited here for 11 or 12 hours already," Gerda Heinzel 55, a German tourist flying back to Munich after a holiday in Phuket.
"We have not been given anything to eat, anywhere to stay. There are no German-speaking staff to help us."
Swiss tourist Gerlinde Hoff, 60, stayed overnight at Suvarnabhumi airport with her husband and they were still waiting by midday to find another flight home.
"They only say 'you have to wait, you have to wait, you have to wait,' she said. "I'm angry and I'm tired. It was such a nice holiday and now it's a little bit not so nice."
Thailand is among the world's most popular tourist destinations, receiving more than 38 million visitors last year, about 6.8 million of them from Europe.
Pakistan closed its airspace after India and Pakistan both claimed to have shot down the other's fighter jets on Wednesday, with Pakistan capturing an Indian pilot a day after Indian warplanes struck inside Pakistan for the first time since a 1971 war.
World powers have urged restraint between the two nuclear-armed South Asian neighbours, who have fought two wars over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.
Many airlines route flights over Pakistan and the closure of its airspace caused major disruptions on Wednesday.
Mr Sam John, who travelled to Pakistan from Singapore on Feb 24 for a business trip, has been left stranded in Lahore.
Mr John, who is the director of business development for Asia at Prolitec Inc, was originally scheduled to fly back to Singapore on Thai Airways on Thursday evening.
"No other choice but to wait," said Mr John, when asked about the flight delays. "(I'm) making the most out of it and seeing more clients," he added.
He said that the situation is calm in Lahore, although he has not received any information regarding the situation from Thai Airways.
"I had to go personally to their office this morning," he said.
Emirates and Qatar Airways suspended flights to Pakistan and others, such as Singapore Airlines and British Airways, were forced to reroute flights.
On Thursday, Singapore Airlines said all of its Europe-bound flights would now continue as planned, without the need for refuelling stops, and they would reroute to avoid the affected airspace as necessary.
Malaysia Airlines said on its website it was not currently flying over the affected airspace and was avoiding Pakistan and northern India for flights to and from Europe until further notice.
Tensions have been running high since at least 40 Indian paramilitary police were killed in a Feb. 14 suicide car bombing claimed by Pakistan-based militants in Indian-controlled Kashmir.