Europe airports fight to clear Christmas backlog

22nd December 2010, Comments 0 comments

European airports fought to clear a backlog of thousands of stranded Christmas travellers on Wednesday as arctic conditions gripped the continent and sparked fresh delays and cancellations.

Weary passengers faced another day stuck in terminals amid fresh snowfalls and continued freezing temperatures which have hit airports in Britain, Germany, France and Ireland.

Britain has offered to send in troops to end the disruption at London Heathrow, while Frankfurt and Dublin airports faced severe disruption.

Eurocontrol, the continent's air traffic supervisory body, said about 3,000 flights had been cancelled across Europe on Tuesday, with similar numbers of cancellations for each of the past four days.

The cold snap chaos also hit Europe's rail network with long queues snaking outside the London terminal for the Eurostar train link between Britain, France and Belgium.

There was a glimmer of hope for angry passengers who have spent four nights sleeping under foil blankets at Heathrow, Europe's busiest airport, as its second runway reopened late Tuesday.

But the huge backlog at one of the busiest times of year meant services will not immediately return to normal, and the airport planned to run about two-thirds of flights Wednesday.

"It is good news to see aircraft taking off and landing from two runways," Colin Matthews, chief executive of airport operator BAA told Sky News.

"But it's really important that passengers understand that doesn't mean the full schedule is going to be restored instantly."

Airport officials were under increasing pressure to resolve the crisis Wednesday after the EU lashed out at the "unacceptable" disruption caused by the heavy snows.

"I am extremely concerned about the level of disruption to travel across Europe caused by severe snow. It is unacceptable and should not happen again," European transport commissioner Siim Kallas said.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said he had offered to use the military to help BAA resolve the crisis at Heathrow, but this offer was refused.

"The people stuck there are having an incredibly difficult time, especially just a few days from Christmas, and everything must be done to either get them on holiday or get them home safely," Cameron told a press conference.

Anger was meanwhile mounting among passengers queuing in the cold outside the terminal buildings at Heathrow.

"I think this hurts the reputation of the whole country. The airport is the first experience you have and this is not a good experience," Gustaf Malmstrom, 23, told AFP as he tried for a fifth day to get a flight to Stockholm.

Most of Heathrow's five terminals were only letting in people who were flying on Tuesday morning, mainly on flights to Asia, while others had to queue outside. Workers handed out silver foil blankets and set up two heated tents.

Eurostar said it was running a restricted service and asked all customers booked to travel before Christmas to refund or exchange their tickets free of charge if their journey was not essential.

The queue of passengers stretched for more than a kilometre around the imposing St Pancras station, and Eurostar warned the chaos looked set to continue.

"It's too early at the moment to say when we will get back to normal," a spokeswoman told AFP.

In Germany fresh snowfall caused gridlock at the country's main airport Frankfurt with no flights taking off or landing for around three and a half hours in the morning.

Many internal flights were cancelled because of the arctic conditions, prompting German train company Deutsche Bahn to announce additional services on major routes across the country to help stranded travellers.

Dublin airport grounded all flights until 0800 GMT on Wednesday after Ireland was hit by more than 15 centimetres (six inches) of snow.

In France authorities allowed the two main airports in Paris, Charles de Gaulle and Orly, to remain open around the clock to clear the backlog of delayed flights.


© 2010 AFP

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