European airports race to clear Christmas backlog

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The race was on at snowbound European airports Wednesday to clear the backlog of stranded passengers in time for Christmas as weather conditions eased slightly.

Thousands of weary passengers woke up in airport terminals around the continent, where stranded travellers have been bedding down since Friday, still in the hope of making it to their destination before Christmas Day on Saturday.

Hopes were lifted at London Heathrow Airport after the second runway reopened, but the backlog at a traditionally busy time of the year meant services were not immediately back to normal.

Around 1,000 passengers woke up in the terminals at Heathrow, the world's busiest international passenger airport, which has slimmed down its schedule in a bid to manage the situation.

Airlines were told what capacity was available and they themselves decided which flights to cut, with both long-haul and short-haul services scrapped.

"We're running 70 percent of our normal planned schedule, which accounts for around 900 flights, and we're comfortable that we'll be able to remove the rest of the snow from the airfield today," a Heathrow spokeswoman told AFP.

"Both runways are open and operating," she said, adding that a total of 30,000 tonnes of snow had been shifted from the apron.

Flights left Heathrow through the night, breaking the normal curfew, in a bid to beat the backlog.

The spokeswoman said the airport was "absolutely" aiming to get everyone away in time for Christmas.

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.

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

Weather reports said snow could persist in northern Europe, which might hamper flight operations at airports that feed flights into key European hubs.

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.

But civil aviation authority DGAC warned that snow predicted to fall as early as Wednesday afternoon would disupt air traffic in Paris region airports.

Around 15 percent of flights at Charles de Gaulle were to be cancelled from 1700 GMT on Wednesday and 25 percent on Thursday.

Operations at Frankfurt airport, Germany's main hub, were improving though 70 early flights were cancelled.

"Operations are more normal at the moment, the runways are free of snow and ice," spokesman Wolfgang Schwalm told AFP as rain and temperatures above freezing gave airport managers a helping hand.

On Tuesday, more than 550 flights out of 1,300 had been cancelled, he said.

Some passengers were taken to local hotels and "more than 300 people spent the night on cots in the terminals" he added.

"If the weather holds up, we will get a lot of passengers to their destinations today, but it also depends on the weather at other European airports," Schwalm added.

The German flag carrier Lufthansa said it expected a "quasi-normal situation" for flights on Wednesday.

Flights got going again at Dublin Airport after the authorities cleared ice and more than 15 centimetres (six inches) of snow.

Unions representing ground staff for Portuguese carrier TAP announced they had called off a strike due Thursday to avoid aggravating the continent's Christmas travel crisis.

While rail services across Europe were also affected, the situation was improving on the Eurostar, which operates high-speed passenger trains linking London with Paris and Brussels.

Eurostar was planning to run a "near normal service" on Wednesday, with nine trains out of 52 cancelled, and were back to accepting passengers on the services they held tickets for.

Passengers at the London St Pancras terminal reported waits of under three hours -- a vast improvement on the kilometre-long queues witnessed in recent days.

In Russia, eight people were killed when a bus smashed into an oncoming truck in the western Siberian region of Krasnoyarsk, news agencies reported.

Investigators said the accident may have been caused by a technical malfunction resulting from the cold weather, with temperatures dropping to minus 50 degrees Celsius (minus 45 degrees Fahrenheit).

Southern Sweden was experiencing problems on its road network because of unusually heavy snow.

© 2010 AFP

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