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Airline forces stranded passengers to cough up extra cash for fuel

November 17th, 2011 1:23 pm by DANICA KIRKA

LONDON (AP) — Airlines have already begun charging for food, drinks, seat assignments and baggage. Now one is demanding that passengers cough up extra cash on board for fuel.

Hundreds of passengers traveling from India to Britain were stranded for six hours in Vienna when their Comtel Air flight stopped for fuel on Tuesday. The charter service asked them to kick in more than 20,000 pounds ($31,000) to fund the rest of the flight to Birmingham, England.

The situation may represent a new low in customer care in an era when flyers are seeing long lines, long waits and few perks.

Britain's Channel 4 news broadcast video showing a Comtel cabin crew member telling passengers: "We need some money to pay the fuel, to pay the airport, to pay everything we need. If you want to go to Birmingham, you have to pay."

Some passengers said they were sent off the plane to cash machines in Vienna to raise the money.

"We all got together, took our money out of purses — 130 pounds ($205)," said Reena Rindi, who was aboard with her daughter. "Children under two went free, my little one went free because she's under two. If we didn't have the money, they were making us go one by one outside, in Vienna, to get the cash out."

Amarjit Duggal told the BBC she was flying from the Indian city of Amritsar on Comtel after scattering her mother's ashes. Her father, sister and uncle were still in Amritsar and did not know when they would be able to return home.

The situation was highly unusual in Europe, where airlines are tightly regulated, said Sue Ockwell, a crisis management expert at Travel PR.

"It's a bit like, well, boarding a train and saying that you can't go on because they've cut the electricity off because they haven't paid the bill," Ockwell said. "You just really don't expect it. This is patently not going to do that airline any good at all."

The passengers did eventually reach Birmingham, but many expressed anger.

"It is absolutely disgusting," said Dalvinder Batra, who is from the West Midlands. "There are still people stuck out there."

Bhupinder Kandra, the airline's majority shareholder, told the Associated Press from Vienna that travel agents had taken the passengers' money before the planes left but had not passed it on to the airline.

"This is not my problem," he said. "The problem is with the agents."

But Kandra insisted Thursday the company was still solvent.

"We have not run out of money," he said. "We have enough."

Late Thursday, the Civil Aviation Authority stepped in to protect passengers after a company that sold flights on Comtel Air went out of business. Astonbury Ltd, trading as Skyjet, ceased trading. The authority will ensure that passengers get home in the coming days.

A similar Comtel situation was taking place back in Amritsar. Some 180 passengers on another Comtel flight were told they would not be taking off until they come up with 10,000 rupees (about $200) each, Kandra told the BBC on Thursday.

It was not clear when that plane was supposed to have taken off. The passengers in Amritsar were not stuck on the plane or at the airport, according to British diplomats in India. Most were booking flights on other airlines to get to Britain.

Ockwell dismissed Kandra's explanations, saying it sounded like a bad credit issue.

"One really does wonder," she said.

Airport officials in Birmingham said Thursday that Comtel's flights this weekend had been canceled, but Kandra insisted all would be operating as normal.

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