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Ireland to Bulgaria a no-go snow zone

Thousands of flights into and out of Europe were cancelled yesterday as Arctic conditions tightened their stranglehold on transport systems across much of the continent.
At least it's not foggy: central London is speckled with falling snow at the weekend. Alastair Grant / AP Photo
At least it's not foggy: central London is speckled with falling snow at the weekend. Alastair Grant / AP Photo

Thousands of flights into and out of Europe were cancelled yesterday as Arctic conditions tightened their stranglehold on transport systems across much of the continent.

From Ireland in the west to Bulgaria in the east, some of the deepest snow and lowest temperatures seen in a century left hundreds of thousands of passengers stranded and Christmas holiday plans in tatters.

London's Heathrow Airport stopped accepting arrivals. Frankfurt airport cancelled about 40 per cent of flights.

Paris's Charles de Gaulle cut air traffic by a quarter as heavy snow blanketed the French capital - a rarity that has occurred several times in recent days during an unusually cold winter.

Heathrow, Europe's busiest airport, said there would be only "a handful" of departures yesterday.

By yesterday afternoon, Frankfurt airport, the third busiest on the continent, warned that, with more snow expected, the situation could only get worse.

The harsh combination of sub-zero temperatures, snow and fog affecting so much of central Europe is being blamed by meteorologists on "a negative phase of the Arctic oscillation".

This has resulted in bitter Arctic air flowing into southern latitudes that are normally warmer. A spokesman at the Met Office in London said that freezing temperatures were likely to last for the rest of the week and, possibly, longer.

And there appears to be little let-up in sight from the snow, which was moving from France into Germany late yesterday while today fresh falls were predicted across much of Britain.

Cancellations and severe delays were also reported in Amsterdam, Geneva, Munich, Copenhagen and Paris, where runways at the Charles de Gaulle airport were closed until mid-morning while they were cleared of snow.

In Brussels, cancelled flights meant that 3,000 passengers had to spend the night at the airport on Saturday, with half of them still stuck there last night.

Several thousand people also had to spend Saturday night camped out in terminals at Heathrow and Gatwick airports and, though limited services started operating yesterday at the latter, the prospects at the former remained uncertain last night.

"The bars were open and some people were drinking and got quite nasty," Sue Kerslake, a passenger who was stuck at Heathrow, told the BBC.

The singer Lily Allen was among those caught in Heathrow disruptions, having to disembark from her plane after a fully boarded flight was cancelled.

Kiri Meili, a 20-year-old student, had meant to fly home to Bangalore on a British Airways flight on Saturday. By yesterday, after spending the night on the floor in Terminal 5 at Heathrow, she was hoping to find a room in an airport hotel, not knowing when she might get a flight to India.

"I arrived at 10am yesterday but everything was cancelled. But I just thought I'd hang around in case anything changed," she said. "At first, I was a bit peeved that it was just BA flights that got cancelled, but then I told myself to get a grip."

An airport spokeswoman said: "Heathrow Airport will not be accepting arrivals on Sunday and will only manage a handful of departures as our airfield team continues to deal with the impacts of yesterday's bad weather and prepares the airport for a full reopening on Monday.

"We have listened carefully to the advice of our airside operations team and have reluctantly judged that while Heathrow's northern runway remains clear, the change in temperature overnight [to minus 5.2°Celsius] has led to a significant build-up of ice on parking stands around the planes and this requires the airfield to remain closed until it is safe to move planes around."

Train services across the continent also suffered from delays with hundreds of passengers ending up stranded in Florence, Italy after snow and ice stopped high-speed trains from entering the city's train station.

Things were no better on the roads with jack-knifed lorries and accidents, some of them fatal, blocking major routes.

Roads in eastern Bulgaria were under a metre of snow after three days of blizzards, while hundreds of travellers crossing the Channel from Britain to France on Saturday had to be given shelter for the night in Calais because road conditions did not allow them to continue.

The governments of France and Britain have faced criticism for not being prepared for this month's snow, particularly because hundreds of drivers in both countries have been trapped overnight in their cars on impassable roads.

Britain's transport secretary Philip Hammond said at the weekend that he had asked the government's chief scientific adviser to assess if the country was experiencing a "step change" in weather patterns due to climate change and if it needed to spend more money on winter preparations.

The British foreign secretary William Hague said yesterday: "We haven't been equipped over the last few decades in this country to cope with every aspect of severe prolonged cold weather. We may have to look again at that if these things are to recur frequently."

Horse racing meetings and dozens of soccer games in England, Scotland and Holland were called off as a result of the conditions, including a high-profile match scheduled for yesterday in London between Chelsea and Manchester United.

* David Sapsted reported from London and Ferry Biedermann from Paris

Published: December 20, 2010 04:00 AM

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