Stricken Comtel cancels UK services


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The Independent Travel

An airline on which passengers claimed they were forced to pay for refuelling has cancelled next weekend's services in and out of the UK, it was announced today.

The move by Austrian-registered Comtel Air comes as some UK passengers are still stranded abroad, while others are battling to get their money back after being "held to ransom" on the Tarmac at Vienna airport earlier this week.

Only one of the two Comtel flights from the Indian city of Amritsar to Birmingham via Vienna took off last weekend.

With passengers stuck in Amritsar, those that did take off said they had to raise £20,000 to fund the rest of the trip from Vienna to Birmingham.

They were stuck at Vienna for six hours and the flight that should have got back to Birmingham on Saturday only arrived on Tuesday morning.

Today, a Birmingham airport spokeswoman said Comtel had told the airport that this Saturday's and Sunday's Birmingham-Amritsar return flights via Vienna had been cancelled.

"They said we would know in the next couple of days about flights after that," the spokeswoman added.

Passengers who booked for the Comtel flights as part of a package would be protected by the Air Travel Organisers' Licensing (Atol) scheme run by the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) .

However, both the CAA and travel organisation Abta stressed today that some of those who had booked flight-only deals may not be financially covered.

Some of the 180 passengers stuck at Vienna who eventually made it to Birmingham described their ordeal.

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

Ranbir Dehal, from Wolverhampton, said: "We were escorted to the cash point to take money out. They said there was a deficit of nearly 24,000 euros and they gave us receipts."

Reena Rindi, who was aboard with her two-year-old daughter, said: "We wanted to go home. We'd been stranded for about three to four days. Who was going to take us home?"

She said passengers agreed to pay so they could fly to Birmingham and added: "We all got together, took our money out of purses - £130. The children under two went free.

"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, from Great Barr in Birmingham, flew from Amritsar last week after scattering her mother's ashes.

She told the BBC that her father, sister and uncle were still there and did not know when they would be able to return home. She said it was very distressing as they were still in mourning.

She said: "They were due to leave Amritsar on Sunday at 10.30 in the morning," she said.

"They did not get the information as to what's happening with the airline."

Comtel Air's director of passenger services Bhunpinder Kandra said: "I have heard what happened, it shouldn't have happened, and I will investigate why it happened.

"The people who had to pay the money will receive a refund."

Asked if the company was going bust, he said: "There is no chance of that. Comtel is a very strong company, 16 years in Vienna."

A Foreign Office spokesman said: "We are aware that a number of British nationals have been affected by difficulties with Comtelairlines flights from Amritsar to Birmingham via Vienna.

"We have been, and remain, in touch with the relevant authorities including the airline for clarification on how British nationals due to fly in the coming days will be affected."

He went on: "Our current advice to anyone affected is to contact their tour operator, travel agent or the airline for further information and about possible alternative arrangements. We would also advise that they monitor our travel advice for India for any updates.

"We took a number of calls from distressed British nationals in relation to this issue and we have provided consular assistance to those who have sought it."

Later, Birmingham airport said the following Comtel Air flights had been cancelled:

* Friday November 18 - COE732 Birmingham-Amritsar at 4.15pm

* Saturday November 19 - COE702C Amritsar-Birmingham at 4:30am local time

* Saturday November 19 - COE732 Birmingham-Amritsar at 6.15pm

* Sunday November 20 - COE702C Amritsar-Birmingham at 5.30am local time.

An airport spokeswoman went on: "Anyone due to travel with the airline is advised to contact the travel company they have booked the flights with for advice. Those passengers overseas need to ascertain whether their travel arrangements are protected by the Atol scheme.

"We expect the airline to clarify the situation regarding its flight programme going forward within the next few days."

She added: "Comtel Air has been operating from Birmingham to Amritsar since October, and has so far offered a successful operation to several hundred passengers.

"It is contracted by a number of UK travel companies to facilitate flights to Amritsar, via Vienna, from Birmingham and has a contractual arrangement with an approved airline to operate this service.

"Clearly, we are very concerned about this situation and understand the distress that this is causing those passengers directly involved and their loved ones.

"We stress that we are very disappointed that the operator is having these problems this week and we working hard to provide some clarity going forward."

Later, the CAA said Essex-based travel company Skyjet, which sold flights to Amritsar from Birmingham on Comtel Air, had ceased trading earlier today.

The CAA said that Skyjet, whose parent company was Astonbury Ltd, was an Atol holder and that the CAA would be able to get home around 200 people currently overseas with Skyjet.

The CAA also said that passengers who had booked Atol-protected trips with Skyjet but had not travelled would be able to claim a full refund from the CAA.

It added that it would ensure that all Skyjet customers due to fly home in the coming days were able to return to the UK, though this is unlikely to be on the flights they expected to return on.

Further information will be placed on the Atol website in the coming days to let people know how and when they should expect to return to the UK.

The authority added that all forward bookings with Skyjet were now cancelled and customers were advised not to go to the airport.