Hundreds of passengers travelling from India to Britain were stranded when their Comtel airline flight stopped for fuel in Austria over the weekend. The charter service asked them to kick in more than 20,000 pounds ($31,000) to fund the rest of the flight to Birmingham, England.
The situation may represent a new low in customer care in an era when frequent flyers have grown accustomed to long lines, long waits, and few perks.
Footage broadcast by Britain's Channel 4 news showed a Comtel cabin crew member telling passengers: "We need some money to pay the fuel, to pay the airport, to pay everything we need. If you want to go to Birmingham, you have to pay."
Some passengers said they were sent off the plane to go to cash machines in Vienna to raise the money.
"We all got together, took our money out of purses — 130 pounds," said Reena Rindi, who was aboard with her 2-year-old daughter. "Children under two went free, my little one went free cause she's under two. If we didn't have the money, they were making us go one by one outside, in Vienna, to get the cash out."
The situation was highly unusual in Europe, where airlines are tightly regulated, said Sue Ockwell, a crisis management expert at Travel PR.
"It's a bit like, well, boarding a train and saying that you can't go on because they've cut the electricity off because they haven't paid the bill," Ockwell said. "You just really don't expect it. This is patently not going to do that airline any good at all."
Amarjit Duggal told the BBC that she flew from Amritsar last week after scattering her mother's ashes. Her father, sister and uncle were still there and did not know when they would be able to return home.
Other passengers also expressed anger.
"It is absolutely disgusting," said Dalvinder Batra, who is from the West Midlands. "There are still people stuck out there."
Bhupinder Kandra, the airline's majority shareholder, told the Associated Press from Vienna that travel agents had taken the passengers' money before the planes left but had not passed it on to the airline.
"This is not my problem," he said. "The problem is with the agents."
But Kandra insisted Thursday that the company was solvent and that the "show will go on."
"We have not run out of money," he said. "We have enough."
A similar Comtel situation was taking place in the Indian city of Amristar. Some 180 passengers on another Comtel flight were told they would not be taking off until they come up with 10,000 rupees (about $200) each, Kandra told the BBC on Thursday.
It was not clear when the plane was supposed to have taken off. The passengers in Amristar were not stuck on the plane or at the airport, according to British diplomats in India. Most of those passengers have been booking flights on other airlines to get to Britain but none of them were British, the Foreign Office said.
Ockwell dismissed Kandra's explanations, noting that it sounded like a bad credit issue on the part of the airline.
"One really does wonder," she said.
Airport officials in Birmingham said Thursday that Comtel's upcoming flights this weekend had been cancelled, but Kandra insisted all would be operating as normal.