Christmas getaway misery as snow stymies Europe

19th December 2010, Comments 0 comments

Heavy snow disrupted the Christmas holiday getaway in Europe on Sunday, forcing the continent's biggest airports to close and thousands of stranded passengers to spend the night on terminal floors.

In London, Paris, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Brussels, flights were cancelled and airports warned of backlogs spilling into next week, with snow and ice frustrating travel plans across Europe on the last weekend before December 25.

Hundreds of passengers had to sleep in terminals after becoming trapped in no man's land when their flights were diverted from affected airports and they were without a visa to leave transit lounges.

London Heathrow, the world's busiest international passenger airport, was paralysed by ice on the tarmac, with no flights coming in and only a handful leaving. Thousands were stuck there overnight.

The airport planned to reopen Monday, but warned passengers could be in for days of cancellations and delays as it cleared snow and ice and diverted aircraft returned to normal positions.

Trevor Taylor, who had been waiting with his wife and two young sons for a flight for Singapore for two days, described conditions at Terminal 5 as "like a third world country".

"Frustration is building up. I've been sleeping on a knobbly marble floor and every space you can see is taken," the 37-year-old said.

Although passengers were advised to leave the airport if their flight had been cancelled, treacherous conditions on the roads and fully booked hotels meant some had no option but to stick it out at the airport, he said.

Some passengers said they were running out of money, while others reported lengthy queues for toilets and plug sockets for mobile phones.

Hundreds more spent the night at London Gatwick, Europe's eighth busiest passenger airport.

"Today is Gatwick's busiest day of the festive getaway and we are doing everything we can to get passengers on their way," a spokeswoman said.

Temperatures plunged to minus 19 degrees Celsius (minus two degrees Fahrenheit) as Britain's Met Office national weather service said snow falls this month have been the heaviest for December since 1981.

Frankfurt airport, Germany's busiest, cancelled more than 540 flights Sunday due to heavy snow, with further flurries and cancellations expected.

Two of the four runways at Paris's Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle airport, continental Europe's biggest air hub, remained closed, with dozens of flights scrapped.

Airport authorities said up to 6,000 people would spend the night in the terminal buildings.

Some 40 percent of Roissy flights from 1500 GMT were cancelled, while 13,000 passengers were awaiting their flights.

"We've no information," said Costa Maroulis, a 46-year-old American going home from the Middle East for Christmas.

"I need to take a plane to Pittsburgh, but they've only told me it's been cancelled. I've queued up several times, at terminal 2F, then 2C and now 2E but I still don't know if I'm going to fly."

The poor conditions forced Eurostar to cancel six of its trains between Britain, France and Belgium, the company announced, as other rail services warned of delays.

In the Netherlands several hundred people spent the night at Amsterdam-Schiphol airport, where air traffic continued to be severely disrupted on Sunday.

In Belgium around 1,500 people were to spend a second night at Brussels airport, after up to 3,000 passengers slept there Saturday. Most of them were on 18 rerouted flights bound for Heathrow.

Sunday was Belgium's 18th day of snowfall since the start of November, beating the previous record was set in 1945.

In northern France, about 15,000 households were without power, with some disruption to road and rail transport.

In northern Italy the situation was improving after two days of chaos on the roads and in the airports in Tuscany.

In the Balkans, four people froze to death this weekend. Two men, aged 72 and 50, were found around Banja Luka in Bosnia, while an elderly couple were found dead by their neighbours in Serbia.

In Croatia, temperatures plummeted to minus 21C (minus 5.8F) in the northern town of Cakovec.


© 2010 AFP

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