Big freeze causes European Christmas travel chaos

SNOW and freezing temperatures continued to cause holiday travel chaos for road, rail and air passengers throughout much of Europe yesterday, raising fears that many will not get home in time for Christmas.

Airlines said that Heathrow, Europe’s busiest airport, was the worst hit by the poor weather — with only a limited number of flights to arrive and depart. Hundreds of passengers camped overnight in terminal buildings after services were cancelled or delayed.

British Airways cancelled all short-haul flights from Heathrow yesterday.

Eurostar reported that its trains linking England to France and Belgium were also severely delayed or cancelled and urged travellers to cancel or postpone their trips if possible. Lines of delayed passengers snaked outside the St Pancras rail station in central London.

Criticism of the situation at London’s Heathrow and other airports prompted British officials to promise an investigation.

In Germany flight operations were slowed even though Frankfurt airport, Germany’s biggest, was clear of snow and ice. Officials cancelled about 300 flights there yesterday, out of a planned total of 1,340, because of problems elsewhere in Europe, airport operator Fraport said.

French civil aviation authorities, meanwhile, asked airlines to reduce their flights at the two main Paris airports by 30%.

French aviation spokes-man Eric Heraud said these reductions take into account the problems at other European airports that may be destinations for flights from Charles de Gaulle or Orly airports in Paris.

More snow was forecast for some areas of Britain, adding to the problems, with British Airways warning of more flight cancellations, particularly in the greater London area, where all airports have been hit.

Winter storms forced British government ministers and bank executives to postpone their meeting yesterday on the politically touchy issue of bank bonuses. The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills did not announce a new date, but said it hoped the meeting could be rescheduled later this week.

Airports and British travel industry group ABTA have warned it is almost inevitable that some cancellations and delays will continue through this week and likely snarl those attempting to head away for the holiday season.

British Airways warned passengers not to travel to London’s Heathrow airport unless they have a confirmed seat on a flight known to be operating despite the weather problems and the backlog of delays. It urged travellers to consider canceling flights if possible.

In Britain criticism of the breakdown in the air and road system mounted, prompting Transport Secretary Philip Hammond to promise an inquiry into the way passengers were treated after their flights were cancelled. Travellers described scenes of chaos for those arriving at the Heathrow airport, with officials offering contradictory messages about the status of flights.

At Heathrow’s sprawling Terminal 5, tired and disgruntled passengers faced lengthy waits without much information.

American Suzie Devoe, 20, was one of many who had spent two nights sleeping on the airport floor in a bid to get home for the holidays. She was desperately trying to rearrange a flight so she could get back to Washington to spend Christmas with her family.

“The whole situation has been a complete nightmare,” said the Bristol University student. “I just want to get home, I want to be with my family; but I’m held in a horrible limbo.”

In France, Jean Louis Balam, a Dutch passenger who spent the night at Charles de Gaulle airport trying for a second day to get from Paris to Amsterdam said passengers had to improvise overnight at the airport.

“We went to the airport yesterday evening and we wanted to go to Amsterdam and we waited here about five hours,” he told Associated Press Television News.

“We had to sleep at the airport because . . . hotels were full. ”

Blandine Sabadie also found herself sleeping at the airport. She said passengers were escorted to an “improvised” area with portable beds, blankets and warm drinks.

French Transport Minister Thierry Mariani said on France-Info radio that it is “unacceptable” that some 3,000 people were blocked at Charles de Gaulle airport over the weekend and called a meeting this week of airlines to find ways to improve communication with passengers.

Authorities in parts of western Germany banned trucks weighing more than 7.5 tons from highways as a safety measure.

In the Czech Republic eight regional railways were shut because of the weather, but the international airport at Prague remained open.

Bus traffic in the Paris region was “very disturbed,” the RATP transport authority said, with buses to the airports halted.

More than 1,000 flights at Germany’s main airports in Frankfurt, Munich and Berlin were cancelled and many more delayed after up to 40cm (16 inches) of fresh snow blanketed the country.

Airlines advised passengers to switch to trains if possible after the new snow added to two week’s worth of accumulation but rail operator Deutsche Bahn, struggling to cope with packed trains and a crush of passengers, urged passengers to stay home.

Tempers flared as Germans accustomed to timely trains and planes were forced to wait in freezing stations or packed terminals, and the unusually heavy snow delayed millions of commuters. Meteorologists warned there was more snow to come.

Belgium closed its motorways to truck traffic after a peak of 600km of traffic jams at the height of the rush hour yesterday morning in the Wallonia region.

The severe weather has hit retailers at the height of Christmas trading. Britain’s biggest department store chain, John Lewis, said sales fell more than 10% on Saturday, while France’s Auchan said its business was being affected. Some online retailers are not accepting new orders or are cancelling existing ones because of delivery problems, according to industry body IMRG.

In Poland, six people froze to death on Sunday night, raising the death toll to 114 in the last month.

Heavy snow snarled Warsaw traffic again yesterday. Warsaw airport was open but was receiving far fewer passengers than usual.

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