Christmas chaos as snow snarls European travel

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Thousands of stranded travellers faced a nervy battle to get home for Christmas as snow and ice caused chaos at European airports Monday.

International hubs London, Paris, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Brussels struggled to clear a backlog of passengers stranded over the weekend as holidaymakers tried to reach their destinations on time for December 25.

Brussels airport authorities announced it was grounding all departures until Wednesday because of lack of de-icing liquid.

Many travellers who woke up in airport terminals after another night on the floor of European airports faced further frustration, with aircraft stuck in the wrong places, throwing flight schedules into disarray.

One top European airport even resorted to sending in the clowns to ease the frustration.

Heathrow, the world's busiest airport, reopened after a chaotic weekend operating a reduced schedule of arrivals and departures. Authorities warned of "further cancellations and delays in the coming days" as airlines move diverted jets and crew back to their normal positions.

Disappointment turned to anger for many stuck travellers. Some said they were running out of money, while others reported lengthy queues for toilets and plug sockets for mobile phones.

Trevor Taylor, who had been waiting with his wife and two young sons for a flight for Singapore for two days, described conditions at Heathrow's Terminal 5 as "absolute mayhem".

"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.

Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said an inquiry would be held into the way stranded passengers had been handled at Heathrow. "Most of what I am hearing is a sense of outrage," he said.

London Mayor Boris Johnson added: "If there was a war on, we'd surely be able to sort this out."

Night-flight restrictions were lifted until Christmas Eve and special repatriation flights were being arranged.

Temperatures reached a record low in Northern Ireland, hitting minus 17.6 degrees Celsius (0.3 degrees Fahrenheit).

Britain's National Grid said it was forecasting a record demand for gas on Monday, while the Automobile Association breakdown service forecast the day would "break all records" for emergency call-outs.

Eurostar, which operates high-speed passenger trains linking London with Paris and Brussels, cancelled some services due to the snow and operated speed restrictions on trains that did run, nearly doubling some journey times.

"We will operate a contingency timetable with some cancellations for a number of days," the company said.

Meanwhile, it struggle to cope with a backlog as queues stretched around the block from the terminal at London's Saint Pancras station.

There were fresh snowfalls in France, hitting both Paris international airports, Roissy-Charles de Gaulle and Orly.

"Air traffic at all airports in the Paris region is very disrupted," the civil aviation authority said.

At Roissy, 3,000 people were forced to spend Sunday night in the terminals after 40 percent of flights were scrapped.

Authorities banned heavy trucks from the roads around Paris and many buses were cancelled in the region, the RATP Paris transport network said.

Frankfurt airport, Germany's busiest, resorted to clowns to keep stranded children entertained -- after the police were sent in, according to press reports, to calm some angry passengers.

The airport scrapped around 340 flights Monday -- mainly because others airports around Europe were closed -- after more than a thousand travellers spent the night on camp beds.

Traffic continued to be disrupted at Amsterdam-Schiphol airport Monday with flights cancelled or delayed due to problems at other airports, spokeswoman Antoinette Spaans told AFP.

In Italy, airports at Florence and Pisa, closed at the weekend because of snow, were open again but authorities reported that the bodies of two homeless people were found Monday, likely victims of the cold.

In contrast to the misery in Europe, the surprise arrival of snow in Australia during the usual hot and summery December was greeted with delight as ski resorts had falls of up to 10 centimetres (four inches).

© 2010 AFP

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