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Sandstorm grounds Finnish tourists in Canary Islands

The force of nature delayed departures by Norwegian and national carrier Finnair on Sunday.

Turisti kuivaa itseään uimarannalla Puerto del Rosariossa.
The sandstorm disrupted aviation in the Canary islands. Image: Carlos De Saa / EPA

A sandstorm sweeping in from the Sahara has stranded an estimated hundreds of Finnish tourists enjoying a winter break in the Canary Islands. Up to Sunday afternoon, some holidaymakers said they had no idea when they would be able to board return flights.

The departure schedule for flights by budget operator Norwegian was still unclear on Sunday after the storm hit as planes due to leave for Finland were still on the ground.

"These planes have of course been standing outside in the sandstorm. If you’ve seen pictures from the site you will see that there is sand everywhere," Norwegian press officer Andreas Hjornholm said.

The airline spokesperson said that for safety reasons, the aircraft will have to undergo a technical inspection to ensure that they were not damaged in the tempest.

"When these checks have been completed and the planes have clearance to fly, we will leave the Canary Islands with the passengers and return them to the Nordics," he continued.

The sandstorm created major disruptions in aviation in the Canary Islands, cancelling at least three Norwegian return flights by early Sunday afternoon. Hjornholm said that the airport on Gran Canaria was officially open for business, but that the weather forecast was still bad and the situation could change quickly.

As a result the airline decided to cancel all flights to avoid a situation where aircraft would have to be re-routed to other airports due to bad weather. Hjornholm said that each of the three scrapped flights were to carry a total of 180 passengers.

"I think it’s safe to assume that there are mostly Finns on the Helsinki flights, but there might also be Swedes," he remarked.

Finnair flight delayed

Finland’s national airline Finnair also reported that at least one of its flights had been delayed because of the storm. According to airports operator Finavia, another flight due to depart in Sunday evening was also delayed.

Jouni Lauriala, press contact for tour operator TUI said that a few dozen of its Finnish customers were due to travel on the cancelled Norwegian flights. Another flight operated by TUI was scheduled to leave Gran Canaria for Helsinki at 1.50pm on Sunday, according to the original schedule.

Hjornholm said that Norwegian was not the only airline affected by the sandstorm. “Of course we are working hard to get the aircraft inspected as quickly as possible so that we can return passengers to the Nordics and to Helsinki. Unfortunately I cannot provide a more specific timetable,” he explained.

He added that passengers will be notified as soon as the inspection is over and the planes are cleared to leave. He said they would be notified by text message and this should give them sufficient time to get to the airport.

Airline appeals for patience

According to STT news agency, Finns holidaying in the Canary Islands said they had not received any information from the tour company or the airline.

"We understand that it is frustrating to be at the airport and not to have any information about your flight. We are working hard to solve this puzzle. Unfortunately we are also being affected by matters over which we have no control," he added.

"We are asking our customers to be patient, although we understand that the situation is frustrating," Hjornholm said.

The hot, dry and often sand-laden hot wind known as Calima sweeps across the Sahara desert during winter and can reach as far as the Canary Islands.

Local meteorologists said that on Saturday storm winds reached speeds of up to 45 metres per second. They also warned that visibility could worsen once more and that gusts would intensify.

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