Fresh snow adds to Europe travel chaos

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Thousands of angry travellers forced to sleep in airports and train stations across Europe faced more misery Tuesday as fresh snowfalls paralysed transport systems just days before Christmas.

London Heathrow, Europe's busiest airport, was only operating about a third of its normal schedule during a fourth day of disruption, while Frankfurt halted all flights after a new blanketing of snow.

For a third day, queues stretched for hours outside the London terminal for the Eurostar train link between France and Britain, as authorities faced growing questions about their failure to cope with the weather.

Colin Matthews, chief executive of British airport operator BAA, which is facing heavy criticism for the backlog of flights caused by the ice and snow, insisted that Heathrow had got off to a "good start" this morning.

"The key message for our passengers is to make sure you check on the Heathrow website to see if your flight is going to depart, if it is, come to the airport and we will do our absolute best to give you a great experience," he told ITV news.

Terminals at Heathrow have been transformed into a makeshift camp with passengers crashed out on temporary mattresses, some of them since the last major snowfall at the airport on Saturday.

Newspapers showed exhausted travellers sleeping under airport signs saying: "Next time you'll fly through departures."

Flag carrier British Airways said the continuing closure of Heathrow's second runway due to the poor weather had caused a "significant number of cancellations", especially to short-haul flights.

Gatwick, London's second airport, reopened its runway at 6:00 GMT although further delays and cancellations were inevitable, a spokesman said.

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 travel is not essential.

The queue of passengers stretched for more than a kilometre (half a mile) around the imposing Gothic building.

"This is the longest queue I have been in in my life," said George Gow, 20, American student, trying to get to Paris.

Volunteers from the Salvation Army -- a charity which normally helps the homeless in Britain -- handed out cups of tea and coffee to those waiting in the cold.

At the front of queue, a French woman, Marie, 32, said: "I have been living in London for three years and it is exactly the same nonsense every year.

"It is actually getting worse, at least last year they gave us croissants."

Temperatures hit a low of minus 17.6 degrees Celsius (O.3 Fahrenheit) in the northwestern town of Crosby, although in London they hovered around 0 degrees Celsius (32 Fahrenheit).

In Germany, fresh snowfall caused gridlock at the country's main airport Frankfurt with no flights taking off or landing from 5:00 am, a spokesman said.

After hundreds of cancellations on Monday, airport managers had expected the situation to return to normal until 2:30 am when snow began to fall again, contrary to forecasts.

More than 1,000 travellers spent the night at Frankfurt airport, which laid on camp beds. On Monday 376 flights out of 1,400 were scratched at Frankfurt.

French 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.

One hundred civil security personnel had been sent on Monday evening with 300 beds and 2,500 blankets for those still stranded at Charles de Gaulle.

"The weather conditions have improved and all those involved are very mobilised, so the number of passengers able to take their flights has grown in the last few hours," said a local police official late Monday.

The latest winter weather and an earlier cold snap two weeks ago will cost Air France-KLM 25-35 million euros, the airline's chief operating officer, Pierre-Henri Gourgeon, said.

© 2010 AFP

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