Christmas at airport for Europe's stranded travellers

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The Independent Online

Hundreds of travellers trapped by icy weather spent Christmas Day queuing for flights in Europe on Saturday after sleeping on camp beds overnight in Paris and Brussels airports.

Travel disruptions this month have upset year-end travel for hundreds of thousands of people and raised questions about the air industry's lack of preparation for icy weather.

Flight schedules were returning to normal in Paris, thanks to fresh deliveries of de-icing fluid from Germany and the United States.

But many people were still set to miss Christmas dinners at their destinations. Travel chaos was compounded by disruptions to high-speed trains and clogged roads from England to Sweden in one of Europe's snowiest Decembers.

"We already had a nightmare in England and now this here," one man groaned on France's LCI television.

Airports operated largely normally in Britain, Belgium and Germany on Saturday, although there were some cancellations in Frankfurt and Zurich. Several hundred people had slept overnight in Paris and Brussels airports, or in nearby hotels.

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. More slept at nearby hotels, where authorities had reserved 3,300 rooms.

While some people cried into mobile phones as departure boards showed long lists of cancellations, others prayed at a mass held at the airport 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 Roissy 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 cold weather was also likely to have hit British retailers in December, a survey showed. [ID:nLDE6BO02D]

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.

Brussels' airport had laid out camp beds for a few hundred people on Friday, but in the end only fifty spent the night there, said airport spokesman Jan Van der Cruysse.

"We are back to normal now. There some delays still but a lot of airlines have also added extra flights to compensate for yesterday," he added.

In Britain, snow delayed tens of thousands of passengers this week. Despite bitter overnight temperatures as low as minus 18 degrees Celsius (-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."

Eurostar trains linking London with Paris and northern Europe were not running for Christmas Day but should run a close-to-normal service on Sunday. Eurostar was hit with crippling delays during the week after speed limits were introduced to cope with the snow and ice.

In Germany, 30 cm (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.