Snow snarls Europe travel, more Christmas delays

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Thousands of stranded travellers spent the night in airports across Europe as more flights were cancelled Monday because of snow and ice, extending travel misery just days before Christmas.

Following a weekend of disruption at major European hubs such as London, Paris, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Brussels, airports struggled to clear the backlog as passengers tried to reach their destinations in time for December 25.

But many travellers had to bed down in airport terminals again Sunday as the winter cold snap threw flight schedules into disarray, with many aircraft stuck in the wrong places.

London Heathrow, the world's busiest international passenger airport, was open following a chaotic weekend, but operating a "limited schedule of arrivals and departures", officials said.

And the west London airport warned of "further cancellations and delays in the coming days" as airlines move diverted jets and crew back to their normal positions.

Only about 20 flights were able to take off or land at Heathrow on Sunday out of 1,300 flights that usually go through.

London Mayor Boris Johnson stressed the "huge economic importance of Heathrow" as he voiced his frustration.

"If there was a war on, we'd surely be able to sort this out," he said.

Disappointment turned to anger for many stuck Christmas 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 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 there.

"Whilst people are obviously deeply upset about the inconvenience, particularly at this time of year, of having their travel plans disrupted, most of what I am hearing is a sense of outrage about the way they were then treated," he said.

London Gatwick Airport was open Monday, with operations "returning to normal" after weekend disruption, though delays and cancellations were set to continue.

Temperatures plunged overnight, with a record low for Northern Ireland seen in Castlederg, where the mercury plunged to minus 17.6 degrees Celsius (0.3 degrees Fahrenheit).

Forecasters have said Britain was experiencing some of the most severe winter weather in a century.

In France authorities cancelled three in 10 flights on Monday from Paris's main airport Charles de Gaulle and its second-biggest Orly, as fresh snow fell.

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

It had "asked airlines to cut 30 percent of flights, until 6:00 pm (1700 GMT) at Roissy (Charles de Gaulle) and all day at Orly," where the runways were closed briefly on Monday morning after more heavy snow.

Eurostar and Thalys trains linking France with Britain and Belgium continued to be delayed on Monday, forced to move slower because of the snow, the French rail company SNCF said.

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, cancelled about 300 flights Monday and expected more snow, after half the scheduled 1,329 flights were grounded -- mainly because others airports around Europe were closed.

Hundreds of passengers spent the night on camp beds, an airport spokeswoman said. "The halls of the terminals are full," she said.

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, in Australia the surprise arrival of snow 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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