Snow shuts down Heathrow, wreaks havoc

2010-12-19 08:16

London - Heavy snow disrupted European air travel over the weekend and stranded hundreds of drivers in their cars as far south as Italy as a white Christmas appeared increasingly likely for many places.

Britain was hit by more blizzards that shut its biggest airports on the busiest weekend for travellers before Christmas and hit road and rail traffic.

London Heathrow, the world's busiest international passenger airport, closed both runways, not accepting arrivals, while London Gatwick also closed its runway for several hours.

British Airways cancelled all short-haul departures from both airports on Saturday, with all long-haul flights from Heathrow scrapped for most of the day.

Gatwick airport said it was providing beds and cots, distributing thousands of blankets, bottles of water and food and making showers and washing facilities available free of charge.

Flights were also grounded at Stansted and Luton airports near London, at Birmingham airport in Britain's second city and Southampton airport for at least part of the day.

Meanwhile Eurostar, which operates high-speed passenger trains linking London with Paris and Brussels, was operating with speed restrictions that added up to an hour on journey times.

Sporting events also hit

National rail routes and trunk roads were also affected.

Four people were killed in traffic accidents across Britain caused by the weather. In Lancashire, northwest England, hundreds of people had to spend the night in their cars after an accident blocked the main north-south motorway.

Temperatures dropped as low as minus 17 degrees north of Norwich in eastern England. Gatwick registered minus 11 degrees.

Sporting events were also hit, with several top flight football matches postponed, including Sunday's big English Premier League clash between title rivals Chelsea and Manchester United. Saturday's games at Arsenal, Wigan, Liverpool and Birmingham were also called off.

Frankfurt airport, Germany's busiest, cancelled about 170 flights on Saturday because of the severe winter weather across Europe, an airport spokesperson said.

German carrier Lufthansa advised passengers to take the train rather than fly, saying tickets for flights could be used on the railways.

But German rail operator Deutsche Bahn warned that the snowfall would also lead to delays and cancellations.

Dozens of flights were also cancelled at Amsterdam's Schiphol, the press office said.

In Italy, the Tuscany region was hardest hit, with hundreds of cars stuck on highways around Florence, where up to 20cm of snow fell.

High-speed trains between Milan, Florence and Rome were also cancelled, leaving some 5 000 passengers sheltering in a conference hall in the Tuscan capital.

Florence airport closed until mid-afternoon, while the airport at Pisa, which is used by low-cost airlines, was likely to remain closed until Sunday.

About a quarter of flights from the main Paris Charles de Gaulle hub will be cancelled on Sunday between 07:00 and 15:00, while 60% of flights were delayed on Saturday, the French civil aviation authority said.

Some 5 200 passengers were rerouted to the airport on Saturday, largely due to Heathrow's closure, a transport official told AFP. Half of them were put up in hotels while others were given lodgings in gymnasiums near the airport.

Snowstorm to continue

In the Bordeaux region five people were hurt on a motorway when a 38-tonne truck ploughed into two vans whose drivers had lost control on black ice, and then caught fire. A fourth vehicle then crashed into the wreckage.

Up to 4 000 people were blocked late on Saturday at Brussels airport, which had to accept passengers from other European airports closed by the snow, airport spokesman Jan Van der Cruysse said.

He told Belga news agency: "The flights for London come from everywhere in the world... China, South Korea, Kuwait, the United States, etc. Given that their destination is outside the Schengen zone (for passport-free travel within Europe) not all these travellers have a visa valid for Belgium, so they must spend the night at the airport."

The snowfall even reached as far south as Algeria, where two people died in a road accident and traffic ground to a halt on several major roads.

The snowstorm that has brought the chaos is moving slowly south over Europe, but the cold weather is expected to continue across much of the continent on Sunday and into next week.

  • Susan_Kanada - 2010-12-19 20:52

    My family and I are 4 of the thousands of people currently stuck in limbo at Heathrow Airport.Our flight to Cape Town should have left at 8:15 pm Dec 18th, got cancelled. The incompetence is incredible. Hundreds of people are sleeping on airport floors with no carpet on it,on only thin tin foil type blankets.There's no shower facilities. Luckily we could beg our hotel to give us a room until the 24th, because our daughter is disabled and simply can't- and won't- sleep on a airport floor. It's a complete disaster. We started off from Edmonton,Canada only found out about the bad London weather after we landed and was told we'll be the last plane landing for a while. It's weekend,can't get our travel agent in Canada, Joburg even more useless, phone call cost us a fortune,gave us a code to enter online that doesn't work. Next flight is apparently only on the 24th, and even if we get a spot on the flight,Christmas with the family is a no-go. How can you do this to us, when we paid over $17 000 for economy class tickets for 4 ( NOT business class). I only have 2 sets of clothing,have to do lanudry in the bath tub each day. Met another lady here that is going to end up missing her own wedding in Franschoek over this fiasco.All over a tiny bit of snow that Canada deals with effectively at their airports all winter All I want to know from SAL is: WHY are your kiosks at the Heathrow airport closed, and where the hell do we get info?

      freeflyshannon - 2010-12-21 19:07

      Very sad to hear of your woes, but theres not really much anybody can do about excessive snow, is there? Hope it all works out for you and your family. :)

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