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Big Freeze Causes Travel Chaos in Europe

Dec 20, 2010 – 10:49 AM
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Theunis Bates

Theunis Bates Contributor

LONDON -- A white Christmas looks almost certain in northern Europe this year, but few people are celebrating the prospect of yet more snow. After three days of blizzards, much of the continent's transport infrastructure has frozen to a standstill, leaving hundreds of thousands of travelers stuck at airports, at railway stations and even on freeways as they try to get home for the holidays.

Paris -- where snow continued to fall this morning -- has been one of the worst-hit cities, with a quarter of all flights canceled from Charles de Gaulle airport this weekend. Airport operator Aeroports de Paris today said that air traffic was now improving, but that delays and cancellations are likely due to heavy snowfall earlier in the day. The city's trains were also badly affected by the icy conditions. More than 1,000 passengers were forced to spend the night at the Gare du Nord station after the Eurostar service -- which links Paris to London and Brussels -- suffered severe delays.

The Eiffel Tower was closed because of snow, and trucks were banned from frozen roads in several regions in northern France. That caused problems for pop star Lady Gaga, who was forced to reschedule a concert in the French capital after trucks carrying stage and sound equipment were ordered off the ice-coated freeway. "I am furious and devastated," she wrote on her Twitter page, "it's unfair to my fans and to me."

Conditions were similarly dire across the English Channel, with Britain and Ireland shivering through their coldest December since 1910. All flights were canceled from London Heathrow -- Europe's busiest airport -- at one point on Sunday, as maintenance workers struggled to clear 33 tons of snow from each of the airport's 200 aircraft parking gates. Donna O'Brien, spokeswoman for the airport's operator, said most of the 200,000 passengers due to fly out from Heathrow on Sunday had been unable to leave.

BAA, the airport's operator, expects further delays and cancellations over the coming days, as many planes and crew members were forced to divert to different destinations over the weekend. British Airways said it expected 60 flights to take off today but noted that 80 more had been canceled.

"I'm really disappointed to have disrupted so many thousands of people's Christmas plans," BAA chief executive Colin Matthews told BBC radio this morning. "It's absolutely distressing and heartbreaking to have been in the terminals and confronted with individuals, each with their stories of really sad and disappointing outcomes. I couldn't be more sorry."

Many of Britain's major roads also came to a standstill during the big freeze. About 6 inches of snow fell in the southern English county of Oxfordshire on Saturday and Sunday, causing more than 80 drivers to abandon their cars on the freeway. Those abandoned autos, as well as several jackknifed tractor-trailers, prevented snowplows and grit-laying trucks from clearing the road.

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Meanwhile in Germany, Frankfurt airport -- Europe's third busiest -- saw about 900 of its 2,700 scheduled flights canceled on Saturday and Sunday. About 300 of 1,300 flights will be canceled today, said airport operator Fraport. On Saturday, police were called to the airport after staff became concerned that some frustrated passengers might become violent. However, by Saturday the situation had calmed, and airport authorities persuaded some staffers to dress up as angels and walk through the terminals, in the hope they would calm travelers. The company also employed clowns and entertainers to keep children stuck at Frankfurt occupied.

Southern Europe hasn't escaped the big chill either. Snow dusted Rome this weekend and even on the island of Capri in the Bay of Naples, according to Italian news agency ANSA. A high-speed train service between Milan, Rome and Florence was also canceled, leaving some 5,000 passengers stranded.

The wintry chaos is expected to continue across Europe for the rest of the week, with yet more heavy snowfall predicted to blanket Britain, France and Germany in the coming days.
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