Anger rises as travel havoc snarls Britain, Europe

By Gregory Katz

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Dec. 20 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

Passengers wait in Terminal 4 at Heathrow AIrport in west London, Sunday, Dec. 19, 2010. Heathrow Airport is not accepting arrivals on Sunday, and is only managing a handful of departures to deal with the impacts of Saturday's bad weather and preparing the airport for a full re-opening on Monday.

Akira Suemori, Associated Press

LONDON — Frustrated travelers in Europe expressed fury Monday at transportation officials' inability to clear runways and high-speed train tracks after a snowstorm that has wreaked holiday travel chaos and spawned fears many people won't get home for Christmas.

More than 48 hours after the last heavy snowfall, English authorities continued to struggle to get rid of buildups of snow and ice. The continent's worst bottleneck was London's Heathrow Airport, where thousands of travelers were stranded overnight as flight cancellations increased even as other major European airports resumed normal operations after several days of weather delays.

London Mayor Boris Johnson summed up the exasperation as Britain suffered another day of travel setbacks.

"It can't be beyond the wit of man surely to find the shovels, the diggers, the snowplows or whatever it takes to clear the snow out from under the planes, to get the planes moving and to have more than one runway going," he said as British Airways canceled its Monday short-haul schedule from Heathrow.

Airport operator BAA announced that flights would be greatly reduced at Heathrow until at least 6 a.m. (0600 GMT, 1 a.m. EST) Wednesday, with only a maximum one-third of its scheduled flights allowed to operate.

"Passengers should anticipate further delays and cancellations in the following days and potentially beyond Christmas Day," BAA said in a statement.

It advised passengers to postpone their trips if possible. BAA said the mandated flight restrictions should provide airlines with more "clarity" for planning purposes. The government has allowed nighttime operations to help clear the backlog, BAA said.

BAA said a five-inch snowfall in one hour Saturday left Heathrow blanketed in snow, and subsequent swings in temperature led to an extensive ice buildup around aircraft parked on the ground. BAA said "every available" staff member and several hundred additional contractors are trying to get the airport moving again.

Air traffic control agency Eurocontrol said Monday on its website that the situation at Heathrow had become "chaotic."

Embarrassed British officials promised an inquiry into the poor performance of the transport network, with Transport Secretary Philip Hammond planning to address Parliament about the failures, which included major delays on the Eurostar rail service linking England to France and Belgium.

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," the Bristol University student said. "I just want to get home, I want to be with my family. But I'm being held in a horrible limbo."

Hundreds of passengers camped overnight in Heathrow terminal buildings after services were canceled or delayed.

The situation worsened Monday after at Terminal 3 when some people holding boarding passes for flights were not even let into the terminal building because it was overcrowded.

Eurostar passengers were also severely affected.

At London's St. Pancras station, frustrated travelers hoping to travel to France and Belgium by train stood in a line that wound through the station, around the outside of the huge building and several hundred yards (meters) down the road.

Many had been there for five hours or more, bundled up in parkas, scarves, gloves and hats against the chill, or clutching cups of tea and coffee from a Salvation Army van that had handed out 2,000 hot drinks since before dawn.

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