Video: Terminal misery at Heathrow

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 12/21/2010 7:48:24 PM ET 2010-12-22T00:48:24

The world's busiest international airport told infuriated passengers not to expect full service until Thursday, five days after a five-inch snowstorm turned hundreds of thousands of holiday plans into a nightmare of canceled flights and painful nights on terminal floors.

Travelers' anger boiled over into politics as Britain's prime minister offered to put troops on snow-clearing duty. Europe's top transport official threatened tougher regulation of airports unable to cope with unusually wintry weather.

Prime Minister David Cameron said his government had "offered military assistance" to the company that operates Europe's busiest airport and others in Britain.

But British Transport Secretary Philip Hammond told Sky News that Heathrow operator BAA, owned by Spain's Ferrovial, had turned down the help in clearing snow from runways.

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Cameron said that given the exceptional weather, which saw 5 inches of snow fall on Saturday, it was inevitable Heathrow would shut for a time. With a backlog of canceled flights, Heathrow said it would be operating around one third of a normal flight schedule until 6 a.m. on Thursday.

"I am frustrated on behalf of all those affected that it has taken so long for the situation to improve," Cameron said.

Major delays and cancellations persisted at European airports and on the Eurostar train link between the UK and the continent, leaving thousands stranded across Europe as Christmas approached.

European Union transportation commissioner Siim Kallas threatened the possibility of new "minimal service" standards for airports if performance does not improve.

"Better preparedness, in line with what is done in Northern Europe is not an optional extra, it must be planned for and with the necessary investment," he said.

London's Gatwick Airport, which closed overnight due to renewed snowfall, re-opened at 0600 GMT but passengers were told to expect further disruption, delays and cancellations.

Interactive: How weather - and a volcano - have snarled travel in Europe (on this page)

Flights to and from Frankfurt airport, continental Europe's biggest, resumed on Tuesday morning after the airport was shut for several hours overnight. "It is our goal to return to normal flight operations as quickly as possible," a spokesman for operator Fraport said.

The picture was slightly brighter for air travelers in Belgium after handling agents at its main airport managed to get hold of de-icing fluid after saying on Monday they might run out, allowing the departure of some planes.

Aviation consultant Chris Yates said that after many years without heavy snowfall, short-term thinking and underinvestment had left Heathrow and dozens of other airports across Britain and Ireland without enough equipment or personnel to cope with big storms.

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"They have concluded they don't need snow clearance equipment, so we don't have the capability when bad weather comes in," he said.

He said airport operators in Helsinki, Stockholm and other snowy climes have the equipment and manpower to clear runways within 30 minutes and to remove ice and snow from aircraft stands quickly, while Heathrow lags far behind.

This could be seen in the days after Saturday's snow, when airports in Frankfurt, Prague, Amsterdam and other major cities in mainland Europe bounced back more quickly than Heathrow, where the ice quickly hardened, making removal more difficult.

The terminals at Heathrow were clogged with passengers desperately looking at computer screens to see if they would be able to get to their destinations. So many people were sprawled on the floor that it was difficult to walk.

Some wore Santa hats decorated with vulgar signs making fun of their most un-merry Christmas.

Video: Terminal misery at Heathrow (on this page)

"It's pathetic — you would think this is a third world country," said Janice Phillips, 29, trying to get back to Minneapolis and sitting next to her sleeping boyfriend, head propped up on a backpack with his mouth ajar.

"I've been here for two weeks and all they've been talking about was this snow forecast. You would think the government could do a better job," she added.

Others pointed out that the snow had stopped on Saturday and the airport was still hobbled three days later.

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"It's not even snowing!" said Candie Sparks, 19, who was trying to get back to Santa Fe. "It's crazy."

Trains delayed
Eurostar, which links England to France and Belgium by train, also advised passengers to cancel their trips in the coming days and receive a full refund unless travel was absolutely necessary.

Outside London's Eurostar terminal, the line of travelers waiting for trains snaked several hundred yards from the station, down the street and all the way to the British Library.

Slideshow: Snow hinders holiday travel across Europe (on this page)

Inside, puffy-eyed passengers shuffled across the cold concourse, watching anxiously as the line periodically spurted forward.

One older man played Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" on his harmonica. The crowd livened up when he switched to Europe's "The Final Countdown."

On the rails, Eurostar trains were still operating at reduced speed, with at least one high-speed train crawling along at 12 miles per hour inside the Channel Tunnel.

There were problems in Germany as well. Fresh snowfall forced Frankfurt airport, Germany's biggest, to suspend takeoffs and landings for a few hours early Tuesday — the latest setback to beleaguered pre-Christmas travelers in Europe and beyond.

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Frankfurt has seen hundreds of cancellations over recent days — often a result of disruption elsewhere in Europe, including major problems at Heathrow.

In Cologne, two railway workers were killed during the night when they were hit by a train as they tried to de-ice a switch.

Police said the men apparently overheard or heard too late a warning signal from the train driver, the German news agency DAPD reported. No one aboard the train was hurt.

Christmas deliveries at risk
The situation in Brussels eased overnight as a feared shortage of de-icing liquid failed to happen.

More flights than expected were able to take off after the airport managed to secure enough liquid to treat most airplanes departing Tuesday.

The airport had previously warned that it would run out of the liquid — which aircraft may need to land and take off in cold weather — by Monday evening and that it wasn't expecting a new delivery until Wednesday morning.

"Most flights are expected to operate as scheduled, in spite of adverse weather conditions," the airport said on its Twitter feed, although its departure board showed more than half of flights either canceled or delayed.

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The icy road conditions in much of Britain also raised doubts about the delivery of Christmas gifts because many side roads were hazardous.

"We are delivering as much as we can, but inevitably some things may not be delivered before Christmas," said Anina Castle, spokeswoman for the Currys chain, which sells computers, iPods, home appliances and many other items.

Currys and many other major businesses have stopped taking online orders for pre-Christmas delivery because of the poor road conditions.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Snow hinders holiday travel across Europe

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  1. A man shovels snow in Scheibenberg, Germany on Saturday, Dec. 25. Heavy snow is hampering holiday travel in many parts of Europe. (Jan Woitas / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Cars travel on snow-covered highways near Jacobsdorf, Germany, on Saturday. (Patrick Pleul / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Two boys play as they wait at Zaventem International Airport in Brussels, Belgium, on Friday. (Thierry Roge / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Plows clear snow from the second runway at Manchester Airport in northern England on Wednesday. (Phil Noble / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A passenger lies on the floor, surrounded by luggage and other waiting passengers, at Heathrow Airport's Terminal 3, west of London, on Tuesday, Dec. 21. Fresh snowfall added to the misery of thousands of Christmas travellers across Europe Tuesday, paralysing flights and trains as the EU lashed out at airports for "unacceptable" disruption. (Adrian Dennis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. People grab refreshments from palettes of plastic water bottles and boxes of chocolate bars inside the departure terminal at Frankfurt Airport on Tuesday, Dec. 21. The supplies were provided to aid the stranded travelers. Another snowfall in the morning caused further delays and cancellations at the airport. (Arne Dedert / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Passengers rest on the floor next to a sandwich bar as they wait for flights from Terminal 3 at Heathrow airport in London on Tuesday, Dec. 21. Heathrow airport is operating only one runway for a third day as snow continues to cause travel delays. (Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A Brussels Airlines aircraft is de-iced on the snow-covered tarmac of Zaventem international airport near Brussels on Monday, Dec. 20. Brussels airport said on its Twitter feed that it could not guarantee de-icing of planes due to a shortage of de-icer caused by transport problems in France. (Francois Lenoir / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. The Bishop of Lincoln, Dr. John Saxbee, blesses the crews and vehicles of of Lincolnshire's gritters as they prepare to go out on duty on Monday in Lincoln, England. The bishop and other clergy across the county have blessed the gritters in the past and hope that it will reduce winter accidents on the roads. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Passengers line up at London St Pancras International Rail Station for Eurostar services to the continent on Monday in London, England. (Oli Scarff / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A man walks a dog in the snow in central London on Saturday, Dec., 18. Plunging temperatures and heavy snow brought large swaths of Britain to a standstill. (Alastair Grant / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A policeman works at an accident on highway A3 near Montabaur, in Western Germany on Saturday, Dec. 18. (Sascha Ditscher / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Passengers push baggage over snow-covered walkways at the airport of Hanover, Germany, on Monday, Dec. 20. (Holger Hollemann / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Airline passengers wait in line beside rows of luggage in London Heathrow airport on Monday, Dec. 20. British airports operator BAA apologized for ongoing chaos at London Heathrow as freezing weather threatened to ruin holiday travel plans for thousands. (Ben Stansall / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Airline passengers lie on the floor at Heathrow Airport in London on Monday, Dec. 20. Winter weather delayed flights across Europe on Monday, frustrating travelers trying to get away for Christmas and putting pressure on airlines. (Luke MacGregor / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. An EgyptAir plane lands as snowplows clear runways at Frankfurt's airport on Monday, Dec. 20. A winter storm caused further travel disruptions across northern Europe on Monday, stranding travelers, snarling traffic and closing schools. More than 1,000 flights at Germany's main airports in Frankfurt, Munich and Berlin were canceled and many more delayed. (Alex Domanski / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Airline travelers wait in line at Frankfurt's airport on Monday, Dec. 20. (Alex Domanski / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Shoppers cover their heads as they walk along Oxford Street in London on Saturday, Dec. 18. Fresh snow brought much of Britain to a standstill on what is traditionally a busy weekend for shopping and travel ahead of Christmas. (John Voos / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Passengers rest on a baggage carousel at Orly Airport, south of Paris, on Monday, Dec. 20. Snow and freezing temperatures continued to cause holiday travel chaos for road, rail and air passengers in much of Europe Monday, raising fears that many will not get home in time for Christmas. (Jacques Brinon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Snowplows clear snow and ice from runways at Edinburgh Airport in Scotland on Sunday, Dec. 19. (Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. A passenger stands surrounded by luggage near the Eurostar terminal inside St. Pancras International train station in London on Monday, Dec. 20. (Carl de Souza / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Rail passengers wait for Eurostar trains outside St. Pancras Station in London, Monday, Dec. 20. Frustrated travelers 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. (Akira Suemori / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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Interactive: How weather - and a volcano - have snarled travel in Europe

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