Hundreds spend Christmas at Europe airports

/ Source: news services

Hundreds of travelers trapped by icy weather spent Christmas Day lining up for flights in Europe on Saturday after sleeping on cots and floors in Paris and Brussels airports.

Flight schedules were returning to normal in Paris, thanks to fresh deliveries of de-icing fluid from Germany and the United States to get planes off the ground, but many people were still set to miss Christmas dinners at their destinations.

Airports were mostly back to normal in Britain, Belgium and Germany, although there were cancellations in Frankfurt and Zurich. Several hundred people slept in Paris and Brussels airports on Friday night.

Freezing weather and heavy snow have disrupted travel for several days, upsetting year-end travel for hundreds of thousands of people and raising questions about the air industry's lack of preparation for icy weather.

Flight delays and cancellations have been compounded by disruption to high-speed trains and clogged road travel from England to Sweden in one of Europe's snowiest Decembers.

Camped out at Paris airport
At Paris's Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport, staff handed out instant coffee and pastries for breakfast on Saturday and Transport Minister Thierry Mariani told passengers he would look into what caused an acute shortage of de-icing fluid.

At least 300 people slept on military-style beds at Roissy on Friday after some 400 flights were cancelled.

Laurianne Bertrand, a 33-year-old French citizen living in Cairo, was trying to reach family in Marseille but got stuck at Charles de Gaulle on Friday.

"It really does matter for the grandparents. They are waiting for us in Marseille," she said Friday. "We want to be with them, but there are worse things in life. I want to stay optimistic. Frankly in that kind of situation you have to be, otherwise you can't handle it."

Ramona Sansotta, a 23-year-old trying to get home to Genoa, Italy, spent Thursday night at Charles de Gaulle — only to see her flight canceled again Friday.

"They brought us some blankets, but no one here could speak our language and we don't speak French. So after we spent the whole night here they canceled our flight again. And now we hope to get back home before Christmas," she said Friday. It was unclear whether she had made it in time.

Many slept at nearby hotels, where authorities had reserved 3,300 rooms. While some people cried into cell phones, others prayed at an airport mass to be able to get on their flights.

A few brought champagne to drink from plastic cups and ate improvised Christmas Eve suppers of smoked salmon, salad, fish pate and cheese cubes, surrounded by suitcases, as a Santa Claus handed out sweets, toys and dolls to children.

"The weather is unpredictable," said Mariani, who arrived at Charles de Gaulle shortly after midnight on Friday. "You can go to all the effort you like but at the end of the day it's the weather."

The French government has come under fire for a failure to cope with a sudden snowfall this month that left thousands of motorists stuck in cars overnight around Paris, and for a shortage of de-icing fluid at airports that forced 2,000 people to sleep in airport terminals on Thursday night.

Paris airports authority chief Pierre Graff said it had been hard to ramp up local supplies of de-icer because only 5 percent of production at factories of the chemical goes to airports.

"Of course I feel responsible," he told LCI television.

Bummed in Brussels
In Belgium, about 500 stranded passengers spent Christmas Eve at Brussels' airport after 10 inches of snow fell early Friday, the heaviest snowstorm in the Belgian capital since 1964.

"I've never had such Christmas before," said Ron Van Kooe, who slept in the terminal. "It's one not to forget, actually. But also a lesson for the future to never book a flight on this date."

A Brussels airport spokesman said the situation had normalized by Saturday afternoon and that remaining stranded passengers were on their way out.

Germans see foot of new snow
In Germany, 12 inches of snow fell overnight, causing train delays between Hannover and Berlin. Trains to the Baltic Sea island of Ruegen, a tourist destination, were axed.

Light road traffic on Christmas Day meant fewer problems were reported, however, and airports were operating normally.

On Friday, Duesseldorf airport was closed for several hours and many trains saw delays.

Britain issues 'all clear'
In Britain, snow delayed tens of thousands of passengers this week.

Despite bitter overnight temperatures as low as minus 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit)in parts of Scotland and England, there was little new snow on Saturday. A spokeswoman for London's Heathrow Airport said only a handful of flights would be cancelled on Christmas Day. The airport will handle some 70,000 passengers on 600 flights.

"There are no snow-related delays today, apart from any cancellations to other airports that aren't open," the spokeswoman said. "As an airport we are operating fine."

The Eurostar train service that links London with Paris and northern Europe was not due to operate on Saturday. Trains will run again on Sunday, with only four cancellations out of 45.

Eurostar was hit with crippling delays during the week after speed limits were introduced to cope with the snow and ice.