Fire forces two-hour shutdown at Rome airport

Ella Ide
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Terminal 3 at Rome's Fiumicino international airport on May 7, 2015

Terminal 3 at Rome's Fiumicino international airport on May 7, 2015 (AFP Photo/Tiziana Fabi)

Rome (AFP) - Rome's Fiumicino airport was forced to suspend all flights for around two hours Wednesday after a fire broke out in a nearby pine grove, spreading dense smoke across the runway.

Italian airline Alitalia said the airport was "fully operational again" after firefighters gained control of the blaze following the afternoon shutdown, but many take-offs suffered delays into the night.

Interior Minister Angelino Alfano confirmed that an investigation had been opened after authorities found that the fire started in multiple places, leading them to believe it was started deliberately.

Several flights were delayed for more than four hours, a French tourist named Lise told AFP as she waited for her flight to Paris, which was delayed by over two hours.

Clouds of grey smoke blown by strong winds had briefly grounded all flights at the capital city's biggest airport, which was forced to close in May after a blaze devastated part of a terminal and had yet to fully reopen.

Teams of firefighters raced to tackle the fire in a pine grove in Focene, next to the airport, which spread to engulf several vehicles in a nearby carpark.

Two fire-fighting planes and two fire-fighting helicopters were dispatched to battle the blaze.

Fiumicino mayor Esterino Montino said the blaze had stretched about one kilometre (half a mile) wide.

"The fire seems to have started in two or three different places," he added.

The airport is still struggling to recover from a nighttime blaze triggered by an electrical fault in a bar which sparked scenes of total chaos in May, with thousands of people hit by flight cancellations and airport staff forced to wear protective masks.

Terminal three, which handles international flights, was seriously damaged and the airport was forced to reduce capacity by 40 percent.

- 'Extremely difficult period' -

Alitalia said Wednesday that the cost of damages from the May 7 fire had reached 80 million euros ($88 million), but the figure could still rise.

The airline's CEO Silvano Cassano said in a statement that it had been an "extremely difficult period" and warned the company could be "forced to shift its growth elsewhere".

The airport's woes have piled on the problems for Rome's mayor Ignazio Marino, who has been battling accusations that the eternal city has descended into grimy and dishevelled chaos, where the transport sector in particular has failed pitifully in the searing summer heat.

The embattled mayor was confronted with revelations at the end of last year of a mafia network operating out of Rome's city hall, pocketing millions of euros from a string of lucrative contracts thanks to corrupt contacts on the inside.

Marino promised Tuesday that the heavily-indebted city would be cleaned up in time for a Jubilee year which kicks off in December, appointing a new transport councillor and assuring sceptics that Fiumicino airport was finally back on track.