BANGKOK: Thousands of holidaymakers were stranded in Bangkok on Thursday (Feb 28) as Thai Airways cancelled all flights over Pakistan after Islamabad suddenly closed its airspace in response to soaring tensions with India.
|Stranded passengers wait outside the Thai Airways ticket counter at the Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok on Feb 28, 2019, after the airline cancelled 11 Europe-bound flights. (Photo: AFP/Lillian Suwanrumpha)|
Twenty-seven flights, the majority to and from European routes, have been cancelled, the Thai flag carrier said, with three passenger jets forced to return to Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport on Thursday.
The cancellations follow a snowballing crisis between nuclear-armed neighbours Pakistan and India, which has raised fears of an all-out war.
Pakistan claimed it shot down two Indian Air Force planes in its airspace, although it later clarified only one Indian pilot had been captured.
India said its forces had also shot down a Pakistani fighter jet as Pakistan suddenly closed its airspace.
Thai Airways said nearly 5,000 passengers had been caught up in the cancellations.
“There are 4,000 from European flights and 700 to 800 from flights to Pakistan,” a Thai Airways spokesperson said.
“We are waiting for permission to fly over other countries,” she said, explaining Iran had rejected a request to fly over its airspace.
“Now we are contacting China,” she added.
The carrier said stranded passengers were put up in hotels at its expense.
But frustration mounted 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.”
Flights to London, Paris, Brussels, Milan and Munich were all cancelled on Thursday, while 10 incoming flights from Europe were also scratched.
The cancellations are a blow to Thai Airways during one of the country’s most popular travel periods.
Several airlines, including Emirates and Qatar Airways, also suspended flights to Pakistan on Wednesday. Others, such as Singapore Airlines and British Airways, were forced to reroute flights.
Singapore Airlines said on Thursday all of its Europe-bound flights would continue as planned, without any 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 Indian airspace for flights to and from Europe until further notice.
Tensions between India and Pakistan 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.
The risk of conflict rose dramatically on Tuesday when India launched an air strike on what it said was a militant training base.
Both countries ordered air strikes on Tuesday and Wednesday, the first time in history that two nuclear-armed powers have done so, while ground forces have exchanged fire in more than a dozen locations.
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