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Travel chaos at Dubai airport after mass flight cancellations – what it’s like to be stuck in the middle of it

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South China Morning Post culture editor Kevin Kwong is among travellers stranded at Dubai International Airport after the United Arab Emirates experienced its worst storm in decades, submerging airport runways. He shares details of the chaos he is encountering.

It was at around 10.15pm on Thursday when I noticed that my scheduled 9.10pm connecting flight from Dubai International Airport to Portugal’s capital Lisbon with Emirates had disappeared from the departure boards.

With no warning or notification from the largest airline in the Middle East, my flight had been cancelled – after at least five reschedulings – leaving me stranded at Dubai’s main airport, one of the busiest in the world.

I’m with thousands of other travellers and holidaymakers from around the world who have been left marooned after an unprecedented storm on Tuesday dumped up to 250mm of rain over the emirate, submerging its airport runways and making it very difficult to get planes in and out.

Some 1,244 flights were cancelled and 41 diverted on Tuesday and Wednesday, AFP reports, and that backlog has been compounded by hundreds more delays and cancellations on Thursday.

Stranded passengers wait for information on their flights at Dubai International Airport on April 19, 2024. Photo: Kevin Kwong

When I landed in Dubai earlier in the evening – from Bangkok, Thailand en route to Lisbon, where I intend to join a yoga retreat – I knew chaos awaited.

Headlines such as, “A year’s worth of rain fell in Dubai on a single day” illustrated the magnitude of the rainstorm that has paralysed much of the United Arab Emirates since Tuesday. But nothing quite prepared me for the scenes at the airport.

Passengers queue at a flight connection desk at Dubai International Airport on April 17, 2024. Photo: AFP

Young travellers are either sitting or sleeping on the terminal floors while most seats are occupied by families with either elderly relatives or children. All want answers.

Emirates and Flydubai customers – some of whom have been at the airport for more than 70 hours already – congregate at boarding gates, but with no ground staff present to assist, what are we supposed to do but get more confused, frustrated and angry?

“Please tell us, your customers, what’s going on,” a man shouts.

A man carries luggage through floodwater caused by heavy rain while waiting for transport on Sheikh Zayed Road highway in Dubai after a historic storm, on April 18, 2024. Photo: AP

And when no official information is forthcoming or available, rumours start to spread: is your flight cancelled? Is the next flight out of this departure gate to Tel Aviv and not Warsaw?

I overhear someone say there are planes but no crews. People are using their smartphones to translate any shred of information that comes their way, rumour or otherwise, into their own language.

Strangely for such a modern airport, there are no phone charging stations and few public electricity sockets; I can’t be the only one worried their phones will die before we manage to leave.

An abandoned vehicle stands in floodwater caused by heavy rain in Dubai on April 18, 2024. Photo: AP

There are plenty of cafes and restaurants, though, so at least I won’t starve. And Emirates has offered free drinks and food “at any of the participating restaurants at Dubai International Airport”.

The toilets, on the other hand, are at their maximum capacity. I have yet to find one in which I don’t have to queue up for a pee, although at least they are being kept reasonably clean.

At 10.45pm, I received an “important travel information” email from Emirates: “We are sorry, your flight EK0193 from Dubai to Lisbon on 18Apr has been cancelled due to severe weather conditions in Dubai. Please contact your travel agent for rebooking. If you booked directly with Emirates, please contact us. We’re sorry for any inconvenience caused.”

Is that it? Isn’t the airline supposed to put us up in a hotel? But another rumour has it that Dubai’s hotels are all full.

I’ve contacted my travel agent in Hong Kong but, as I write this, I still don’t know when I will fly out of Dubai.

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