European airports race to clear Christmas backlog

The race was on at snowbound European airports to clear the backlog of stranded passengers in time for Christmas as weather conditions eased slightly.

London: The race was on at snowbound European airports Wednesday to clear the backlog of stranded passengers in time for Christmas as weather conditions eased slightly.

Thousands of weary passengers woke up in airport terminals around the continent, where stranded travellers have been bedding down since Friday, still in the hope of making it to their destination before Christmas Day on Saturday.

In London, Paris and Frankfurt, the continent`s busiest airports were running a slimmed-down schedule in a bid to get stranded passengers on the move.

Around 1,000 passengers spent the night at London Heathrow, the world`s busiest international passenger airport.

"We`re running 70 percent of our normal planned schedule, which accounts for around 900 flights, and we`re comfortable that we`ll be able to remove the rest of the snow from the airfield," a Heathrow spokeswoman told a news agency.

"Both runways are open and operating," she said, adding that a total of 30,000 tonnes of snow had been shifted from the apron.

Flights left Heathrow through the night, breaking the normal curfew.

The spokeswoman said the airport was "absolutely" aiming to get everyone away in time for Christmas.

Eurocontrol, the continent`s air traffic supervisory body, said about 3,000 flights had been cancelled across Europe on Tuesday, with similar numbers of cancellations for each of the previous four days.

Airport officials were under increasing pressure to resolve the crisis after the European Union lashed out at the "unacceptable" disruption, but weather reports said snow could persist in northern Europe.

Colin Matthews, the head of Heathrow`s operator BAA, said he would not take his bonus for 2010 after union chiefs said accepting the payment would be an "absolute slap in the face" to stranded passengers.

London Mayor Boris Johnson added: "I really hope BAA is learning some very serious lessons; they have got to be ready next time."

At Paris-Charles de Gaulle, continental Europe`s busiest airport, 15 percent of flights were to be cancelled between 1700 GMT and 2200 GMT Wednesday due to expected snow flurries, while the schedule was to be slashed by 25 percent throughout Thursday.

Paris`s second airport, Orly, was also likely to be affected.

Services at Frankfurt Airport, Germany`s main hub, were improving though 70 early flights were cancelled.

Overnight some 300 people slept in the terminals, while others were taken to local hotels.

"If the weather holds up, we will get a lot of passengers to their destinations today, but it also depends on the weather at other European airports," an airport spokesman said.

German flag carrier Lufthansa said it expected a "quasi-normal situation" for flights on Wednesday.

Flights got going again at Dublin Airport after the authorities cleared ice and more than 15 centimetres (six inches) of snow.

Things were largely back to normal at Brussels Airport, with only a few flights to Switzerland scrapped.

Thick fog grounded planes at the Bulgarian capital Sofia, forcing diversions to Plovdiv in the south and airports in neighbouring countries. Matters were not helped by a 20-car pile-up on the main road to Sofia Airport.

Ground staff for Portuguese carrier TAP called off a strike due Thursday to avoid aggravating the continent`s Christmas travel crisis.

While rail services across Europe were also affected, the situation was improving on the high-speed passenger trains linking London with Paris and Brussels.

Eurostar was planning to run a "near normal service" on Wednesday, with nine trains out of 52 cancelled.

The wintry weather caused cancellations and delays on public transport across Scandinavia.

Denmark recorded its lowest December temperature since 1981, minus 22.5C (-8.5F).

Two sections of the E6 motorway, which runs down the spine of Norway into Sweden, were shut.

In Russia, eight people were killed when a bus smashed into a truck in the western Siberian region of Krasnoyarsk.

The accident may have been due to a technical malfunction caused by temperatures dropping to minus 50 degrees Celsius (minus 45 degrees Fahrenheit).

Meanwhile, some 2,000 pagans, druids and revellers celebrated the winter solstice at the Stonehenge monument in southwest England by having a snowball fight at sunrise.

Bureau Report

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