- Associated Press - Monday, December 20, 2010

LONDON (AP) — Frustrated travelers in Europe expressed fury Monday at transportation officials’ inability to clear snow and ice from planes, runways and high-speed train tracks, failings that have caused holiday travel chaos and fears that many will not get home in time for Christmas.

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 snow-ploughs 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.

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 massive 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,” said the Bristol University student. “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.

British Airways said all short-haul flights from Heathrow would be canceled Monday.

Eurostar reported that its trains linking England to France and Belgium were also severely delayed or canceled and urged travelers to cancel or postpone their trips if possible. Lines of delayed passengers snaked outside the St. Pancras rail station in central London.

The Eurostar website advised passengers holding reservations for later trains on Monday that the rail service would not be able to accommodate them because of the backlog.

Criticism of the situation at London’s Heathrow and other airports prompted British officials to promise an investigation.

The strain was also felt at Brussels Airport, which is facing a shortage of deicing liquid and can’t guarantee departures for planes that need deicing until at least midnight Tuesday, the airport said Monday in its Twitter feed.

The airport said that the shortage is due to transportation problems in France, adding that “the weather forecast is not so positive.”

In Germany flight operations were slowed even though Frankfurt airport, Germany’s biggest, was clear of snow and ice. Officials canceled about 300 flights there Monday, out of a planned total of 1,340, because of problems elsewhere in Europe, airport operator Fraport said.

French civil aviation authorities, meanwhile, asked airlines to reduce their flights at the two main Paris airports by 30 percent.

Tempers were on the rise at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport.

Donna Gordon, a stranded Irish traveler, took her complaint directly to Transport Minister Thierry Mariani who made a trip to the airport to check on passengers.

“We’ve been here since Saturday at 6 a.m. and our flight keeps saying on time, on time, on time ….,” she complained. “I’m standing in the same clothes I’ve been wearing for three days.”

More snow is forecast in some areas of Britain for Monday afternoon, adding to the problems, with British Airways warning of more flight cancellations, particularly in the greater London area, where all airports have been affected.

Winter storms forced British government ministers and bank executives to postpone their meeting Monday on the politically touchy issue of bank bonuses. The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills did not announce a new date but said it hoped the meeting could be rescheduled later this week.

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.

Airports and British travel industry group ABTA have warned it is almost inevitable that some cancellations and delays will continue through this week and likely snarl those attempting to head away for the holiday season.

British Airways warned passengers not to travel to London’s Heathrow airport unless they have a confirmed seat on a flight known to be operating despite the weather problems and the backlog of delays. It urged travelers to consider canceling their flight if possible.

Icy conditions were also hampering travel across Europe, with flights canceled and delayed in multiple countries at the weekend.

“We are awaiting further updates,” before publishing the schedule for the remainder of the day, British Airways said in a statement. “Customers should continue to check their flight status as more snow is forecast this afternoon, which could cause further disruption to airport operations.”

In Britain criticism of the breakdown in the air and road system mounted, prompting Transport Secretary Philip Hammond to promise an inquiry into the way passengers were treated after their flights were canceled. He was expected to address Parliament about the crisis Monday afternoon.

Travelers described scenes of chaos for those arriving at the Heathrow airport, with officials offering contradictory messages about the status of flights.

In France, Jean Louis Balam, a Dutch passenger who spent the night at Charles de Gaulle airport trying for a second day to get from Paris to Amsterdam said passengers had to improvise overnight at the airport.

“We went to the airport yesterday evening and we wanted to go to Amsterdam and we waited here about five hours,” he told Associated Press Television News. “We had to sleep at the airport because … hotels were full. “

Blandine Sabadie also found herself sleeping at the airport. She said passengers were escorted to an “improvised” area with portable beds, blankets and warm drinks.

Mr. Mariani, the French transport minister, said on France-Info radio that it is “unacceptable” that some 3,000 people were blocked at Charles de Gaulle airport over the weekend and called a meeting this week of airlines to find ways to improve communication with passengers.

The minister, explaining multiple delays around Europe, said that when a runway is closed for an hour the lost time cannot be reclaimed. “For each hour lost, it is some 70 to 80 flights that you can’t recover during the day,” he said.

Authorities in parts of western Germany banned trucks weighing more than 7.5 tons from highways as a safety measure.

In the Czech Republic eight regional railways were shut because of the weather but the international airport at Prague remained open. Schipol Airport in Amsterdam was also fully operational Monday after several days of delays.

Geir Moulson and Juergen Baetz in Berlin, Gabriele Steinhauser in Brussels, Elaine Ganley and Jeff Schaeffer in Paris contributed to this report.

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