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Fog shuts down Kunming airport, strands thousands

Date: 2013-01-04

Although 33.5 billion yuan can buy many things, it apparently cannot buy an airport protection from the elements. Complications due to fog left thousands stranded yesterday at Kunming Changshui International Airport.

A haze that began at 10am and continued thickening throughout the day prompted airport officials to divert flights away from Kunming and cancel all those scheduled to depart. Late in the evening some 7,500 people were still marooned at the airport after 440 flights were scratched.

Planes headed to Kunming were rerouted, often to airports in Sichuan. Flight cancellations led to mass confusion as travelers with layovers in Kunming were left without accommodation. The airport's only internal hotel, which charges by the hour, was fully booked by late afternoon.

Former GoKunming editor Chris Horton was one of those stuck at the airport. Horton's flight was originally scheduled to depart at 4:40pm. After several delays, the flight was canceled at 6:15pm. He received his checked baggage nearly two hours later.

The inconvenience of his flight's cancellation was compounded by the lack of heating in the airport, he said, adding that it was cold enough inside to see one's breath.

Airport workers tried their best to cope with the circumstances, distributing a limited supply of small blankets and addressing people's concerns when they could, Horton said. However, no announcements were made regarding flight cancellations, refunds or baggage claim procedures, creating an atmosphere of confusion, frustration and sometimes anger:

Nobody was willing to line up and several travelers went behind airline counters to harass already overwhelmed staff. People were yelling and pushing and some were pounding on or even standing on desks and countertops.

Designed by city planners to be a symbol of Kunming's development, Changshui International Airport opened in June 2012. The facility accommodated 23 million passengers in its first six months of operation.

This was the first major test for China's fourth largest, and seventh-busiest airport. Somewhat ironically, news reports published on New Year's Eve commended the airport for its efficiency and overall lack of delays.

As of this writing the airport is attempting to clear its backlog, giving priority to delayed flights. Travelers leaving from Changshui International are encouraged to call in advance to check flight status.