Heathrow snow chaos shames Britain, say travellers

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Passenger Alexander Valdarama has spent the last two nights sleeping on the floor at Heathrow airport on a foam mattress hand-out.

"It's been a terrible experience. I've been flying for more than 20 years and something like this has never happened," said Valdarama, from Manila in the Philippines, told AFP.

He spent his first night in a hotel paid for by the airline but the taxi there cost him 90 pounds (140 dollars, 106 euros) so for the last two nights the floor has been his only option.

Valdarama is just one of thousands stranded at the airport, and whether they hail from Asia, Africa, Europe or the Americas, all agree that the chaos is the worst they have seen anywhere.

The 47-year-old seaman has been sleeping at Heathrow's flagship Terminal 5, which caters mainly for British Airways, since the cancellation on Saturday of his flight to Belgium, where he was due to join a ship's crew.

In sharp contrast however to the chaotic scenes at the weekend when blizzards shut both runways, the mood was relatively calm at the terminal as airport workers handed out boxes containing sandwiches, cake and cartons of water.

Passengers appeared to heed calls by Colin Matthews, the beleaguered boss of British airport authority BAA, to stay away unless their flight had been confirmed. About two-thirds of flights at Heathrow were cancelled on Tuesday.

But it was a far cry from the "great experience" promised by Matthews to those who did come to the airport.

In the same terminal was a family of seven, including three children, who left Malaysia on Friday for a skiing holiday in Switzerland, but found all connecting flights cancelled. They had to fork out for four nights at a hotel.

"This is our Christmas present. It looks like we'll have to cancel our holiday," said Mokhtar Azhan, 32.

Christine Townsend, a German woman living in Vancouver, said she had been trying to get to her mother's 70th birthday in Frankfurt last Friday -- but with the airport there closed, followed by Heathrow, she was stranded.

"I've felt like a homeless person," she said, adding that she spent the first night in a hotel, then two nights at the home of a couple who offered her a bed, and the previous night on the terminal floor.

"I don't have a cellphone that works internationally. I have no laptop and my credit card was cancelled because I'm in the wrong country. So I have no money, I feel completely stranded and hopeless."

She abandoned her trip and hoped to fly home to Vancouver Thursday.

Hundreds of people meanwhile had to queue in the cold outside Terminal 3, where staff were limiting access to the departure lounge to all those with tickets for Tuesday.

And in Terminal 4, dozens of Nigerian travellers trying to get home on Arik Air were becoming desperate.

Kelvin, a 27-year-old studying in the central English city of Coventry, had been trying for two days to get to Abuja for his wedding.

"I'm supposed to be getting married on the 26th. I told the airline staff but they don't care about it. I've given up, I've got my bus ticket back to Coventry and I've postponed the wedding," he told AFP.

Grim faced, he gave only his first name before retiring to a quiet corner to call his fiancee to give her the bad news.

In the same area, a woman who was four months pregnant complained that she had been left sleeping on coats on the floor and without any food.

"We feel very cheated and very disappointed," added 21-year-old Idayat Ishona, who is studying computer science in Portsmouth, southeast England, and was trying to visit her family in Lagos.

After five days spent sleeping on the terminal floor she was close to tears. "Right now I just want to get home, I just want to get to Nigeria. It's terrible," she said.

© 2010 AFP

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