London: The Christmas travel season has turned angry and chaotic as British officials struggled to clear snow and ice that paralyzed rail and air links and spawned cancellations and delays stranding thousands around the world.
More than 48 hours after Britain’s last snowfall, some furious passengers with boarding passes for Monday flights were not even allowed into London’s Heathrow Airport. Inside, piles of garbage grew and some people slept on terminal floors.
Other travelers waited in the cold for up to six hours to get inside London’s St. Pancras train station, where they had to wait still longer for Eurostar trains to mainland Europe.
Chagrined British officials promised an inquiry into the failure to clear the remnants of a storm that dumped five inches over parts of England Saturday morning. Other European airports rebounded from weekend snowfall and resumed close to normal flight schedules by Monday.
“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,” London Mayor Boris Johnson said as British Airways canceled its Monday short-haul schedule from Heathrow.
Forecasters have said Britain is experiencing some of the most severe winter weather in a century, with continued freezing temperatures and snowfall accumulations expected Monday afternoon and evening. Experts said the extreme winter weather may be related to climate change due to global warming. With a warmer climate, there’s more moisture in the air, which makes storms including blizzards more intense.
Heathrow operator BAA said swings in temperature after the five-inch snowfall in one hour Saturday led to extensive ice buildup around aircraft on the ground. BAA said “every available” staff member and several hundred additional contractors were trying to get the airport moving again.
But BAA offered little hope of relief from travel purgatory, saying a maximum one-third of scheduled flights would be allowed to take off and land at Heathrow until at least 6:00am. (0600 GMT, 1:00am EST) Wednesday. The British government approved night-flight operations at Heathrow in an effort to remove the backlog, but officials warned it may take until after Christmas to do so and longer if more snow falls.
The capital’s smaller airport, Gatwick, announced late Monday that there will be no outbound flights until Tuesday morning because more snow is expected.
At Heathrow’s sprawling Terminal 5, tired and disgruntled passengers faced lengthy waits without much information as piles of garbage grew throughout the complex.
“The whole situation is horrible,” said teenager Sophiya Bolkova, as she clutched her ticket home to Moscow after three days’ delay. “We are very angry. People were just mean, rude, sleeping on the floor, babies sleeping on the floor, no information, no help, no money for hotels.”
American Suzie Devoe, 20, spent two nights on the airport floor and was desperately trying to get back to Washington for Christmas. “I just want to get home, I want to be with my family. But I’m being held in a horrible limbo,” the Bristol University student said.
At St. Pancras, hundreds of 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.
Train operator Eurostar broadcast loudspeaker announcements warning people not to travel unless their journey was “absolutely essential.” Many said they were getting little other information. A spokeswoman said the delay was due to safety reasons, as trains traveling at high speeds in icy conditions can be damaged, but she promised good service on Tuesday.
Frankfurt airport, Germany’s biggest, was clear of snow and ice but officials canceled about 300 of 1,340 flights because of problems elsewhere in Europe.
French civil aviation authorities, meanwhile, asked airlines to reduce their flights at the two main Paris airports by 30 percent.
The snow-related problems come near the end of a year filled with travel disruptions, including the April shutdown of much of Europe’s airspace because of a plume of ash from a volcano eruption in Iceland.