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Chaos as travellers head for Rome

April 19, 2010

by Guy Dinmore in Rome

Published: April 19 2010

“Don’t worry. Be Happy.”

Passengers stranded in Rome trying to get information from Fiumicino airport are greeted with Bobby McFerrin’s 1988 lyric and a jammed switchboard. The website of Aeroporti di Roma, which manages the capital’s airport, has crashed.

Taxis have never had it so good, charging €2,000 for a ride from Rome to Paris. One driver says he is just back from Brussels, taking €2,500 one-way.

With northern European airspace shut down, airports in Madrid and Rome are the two main European hubs handling flights from the US.

Despite this, Alitalia, the slimmed-down regional airline rescued from bankruptcy a year ago by a consortium of Italian entrepreneurs, said its 38 flights a week to four US cities were operating but surprisingly were not full.

Italy’s centre-right government has yet to respond to the crisis. The transport and defence ministries said they were not doing anything to help passengers get home, referring inquiries to the national Civil Protection Agency. Its role so far has been mainly to supply water and cots at the airport – where some 600 passengers were reported to be sleeping – and deal with medical emergencies.

“It’s not up to the government to organise this,” a transport ministry spokesman said. The defence ministry said it had not been asked to get involved.

All trains for Europe and northern Italy are fully booked. Ferrovie dello Stato, the national railway company, said it was putting on two extra trains to the border with France. Railway congestion in northern Europe is a limiting factor.

“The airlines are dumping their problem on us, sending us their passengers. Our stations are overwhelmed,” a company spokesman complained.

“Anger and desperation,” was how reporters described the scene at Fiumicino on Monday morning as thousands tried to board planes leaving for airports in northern Italy. Airspace was opened for just two hours then closed again.

Alitalia said it was not organising buses to get passengers to other destinations in Europe as it had not been requested to do so.

Aeroporti di Roma said Fiumicino handled 18 flights in and out of the US on Monday as normal and no extra flights were planned.

In a gesture of support, Italy’s main CGIL trade union announced that it would put off a one-day transport strike it had called for this Friday.

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