Snow, Ice Disrupt pre-Christmas Travel in Europe; Many Flights Cancelled

By Avril Ormsby | December 20, 2010

Europe saw little respite on Sunday from the Arctic conditions that closed airports and disrupted travel over the weekend before Christmas, traditionally one of the busiest times of the year.

London’s Heathrow, the world’s busiest international airport, which was forced to close both its runways for much of Saturday because of heavy snow, was not accepting inbound flights on Sunday and said only a few planes would be leaving.

About 30 tons of snow were being shifted away from each parking stand around the planes, but ice was making it dangerous for the aircraft to be moved.

“There comes a point at which the weather has such an impact that it’s simply not safe to fly,” Andrew Teacher, spokesman for airport operator BAA, told BBC television.

The runway at London’s second busiest airport Gatwick was open but thousands of passengers faced delays and cancellations, as they were at most other British airports.

A plane bound for Islamabad was stranded on the runway at Birmingham airport for more than six hours.

“We’ve had about three or four incidents where people have had panic attacks, chest pains, vomiting. They won’t let us off the plane,” passenger Marium Hassain told BBC television.

In Germany, Frankfurt airport operator Fraport said 560 flights had been cancelled by Sunday afternoon and a large snow front coming in could mean more cancellations.

At Germany’s second largest airport in Munich, about 75 flights were cancelled on Sunday out of 1,100 in all, mostly due to problems at other airports such as Amsterdam, Paris and Brussels, a spokesman said. Planes destined for London were being diverted to Munich and other German airports.

Many trains were also delayed or cancelled and the speed limit for intercity train travel was restricted across Germany.

Snow blanketed northern France and authorities mobilized light armored personnel carriers in some areas to help motorists stranded on roadsides by the white stuff.

Around 700,000 people had been expected to travel through Paris’ two main airports over the weekend. But at the biggest, Roissy Charles de Gaulle, 40 percent of flights were cancelled and over 5,000 people were stranded. At Orly, the city’s second airport, 20 percent of flights were cancelled.

In Paris, the Eiffel Tower was closed because of the snow and a pop concert by Lady Gaga due to be held on Sunday was cancelled because restrictions on heavy trucks in the Paris region prevented the show’s equipment from arriving on time.

British Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said he had asked the government’s chief scientific adviser to assess whether the country was experiencing a “step change” in weather patterns due to climate change and if it needed to spend more money on winter preparations.

Britain traditionally experiences mild winters. But last year’s was the coldest for 30 years and this December is likely to be its coldest since 1910.

The Met Office said up to 20 cm [app. 8 inches] of fresh snow was forecast on high ground in southwest England and south Wales, while in London the mercury was set to touch minus 6 Celsius [21.2°F] on Monday.

“Snow combined with widespread ice and freezing temperatures will lead to the risk of significant disruption through Monday,” Met Office Chief Forecaster Steve Willington said.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague told Sky News: “As my colleague, the transport secretary, has said, we haven’t been equipped over the last few decades in this country to cope … with every aspect of severe prolonged cold weather. We may have to look again at that if these things are to recur frequently.”

The government and transport operators drew criticism as the cold spells have seen trains delayed and cancelled, roads closed and some drivers forced to sleep in their cars.

(Additional reporting by Berlin, Frankfurt and Paris bureaux; writing by Janet Lawrence and Elizabeth Fullerton; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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