As snow and ice continue to wreak havoc across Europe and calls mount for better weather preparedness, relief is not forecast to arrive until after the holiday.
Travellers face bleak Christmas at snowed-in airports
LONDON // Thousands of airline passengers travelling to or from Europe faced the prospect of being stranded over Christmas last night as snow and ice continued to cripple transportion across the continent.
The situation was most dire at London's Heathrow Airport, the world's busiest commercial hub, where only one of the two main runways was operational and two-thirds of flights cancelled.
But severe problems remained elsewhere with Frankfurt, the continent's third-busiest airport, having to close for several hours yesterday because of a fresh snowfall.
Yesterday's morning flight from Frankfurt to Abu Dhabi was cancelled, resulting in the cancellation of last night's outgoing flight from Abu Dhabi to Frankfurt. A reservations officer at Abu Dhabi's Lufthansa office said flights had resumed out of Frankfurt yesterday afternoon.
A few flights other flights from Europe to the United Arab Emirates faced delays yesterday, while British Airways and Emirates Airlines confirmed they were operating on schedule.
Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam was returning to normal, although there were still delays and cancellations - a similar story to the one in Paris, where the transport minister, Thierry Mariani, has called a meeting of airlines to discuss the "unacceptable" situation after thousands of passengers were left stranded at Charles de Gaulle airport over the weekend.
The EU Commission yesterday also attacked Europe's air travel disruption and urged airports to "get serious" about better planning for bad weather.
The transport commissioner, Siim Kallas, said the chaos at airports across Europe "should not happen again" and warned that, if necessary, the commission would bring in laws on "minimum service requirements", including the provision of proper equipment to tackle severe winter conditions.
Yesterday's problems remained focused on Britain, parts of which have endured snow and freezing temperatures for the most part of a month that looks like it is becoming the coldest December ever recorded. So far, the average daily temperature is minus 0.7 Celsius.
While temperatures are rising across much of central Europe, with snow giving way to rain, winter's grip on the United Kingdom looks likely to hold firm for several more days.
Paul Mott, the forecaster at MeteoGroup, the Press Association's weather division, said that, while more snow was possible in the far north of Scotland and far south of England, most of the country would remain dry.
He added: "There will be no melting over the next few days, but we will see milder weather after Christmas. And by December 27, there should be significant thawing."
Although London's second airport, Gatwick, was returning to near-normal operations yesterday after reopening, there were warnings that Heathrow's problems could persist until the start of next week.
The British Prime Minister David Cameron revealed yesterday that he had "offered military assistance" to clear Heathrow's snow but airport operators BAA had told him they did not need help, even though the company admits that it will not be able to restore full service until tomorrow at the earliest.
With a backlog of stranded passengers already running into tens of thousands after five days of snow and sub-zero temperatures, BAA, the airport's operator, warned in a statement: "Passengers should anticipate further delays and cancellations in the following days and potentially beyond Christmas Day."
The government has ordered an investigation into the situation at Heathrow though Philip Hammond, the UK's transport minister, who said in a statement to the House of Commons that some disruption was "inevitable" given the severity of the weather.
But while he said that efforts to keep the roads open and rail services running had been "broadly satisfactory", he added: "Things did not go well at Heathrow, there's absolutely no getting away from that."
The government has relaxed night-time landing and take-off restrictions in order to clear the backlog but problems remain over planes that have become ice- and snow-bound at their stands.
Passengers desperate to return home for Christmas have been turning to the trains but, even here, there have been problems across much of the continent.
Reuters reported yesterday that airlines in Germany had been suggesting to passengers that they switch to trains while, simultaneously, train operators were urging people to stay at home because their services were already overcrowded and limited.
Eurostar trains between London and Paris and Brussels attracted thousands of extra passengers, hoping to get across the Channel after their flights were cancelled, creating a queue more than a kilometre long at the St Pancras terminal in London.
Mary Walsh, a spokeswoman for Eurostar, said that only passengers with confirmed bookings should even hope to get on a train, especially as only about 80 per cent of services were running.
"Due to the continuing bad weather, speed restrictions are in place on our high speed lines, adding up to two hours to journey times. As a result we can not operate as many trains as planned," she said.
Other people headed for the English and French Channel ports with ferry companies reporting 10 times more foot passengers than normal trying to get aboard their sailings.
Meanwhile, retailers across the continent are worried that, with only three shopping days left until Christmas, their sales might not recover after a week when the bad weather has kept shoppers at home.
Alexon, the womenswear retailer with 990 outlets in the UK and Europe, warned yesterday that its sales had slumped 20 per cent over the past three weeks, sending its shares down a fifth.