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Thousands stranded in Europe airport chaos

Military to resolve chaos at Heathrow
EU blasts 'unacceptable' airport chaos

LONDON, December 21, 2010 (AFP) - 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.

London Heathrow, where passengers have been forced to sleep on terminal floors during four days of chaos, cancelled two thirds of flights while Frankfurt closed for several hours after more snow fell overnight.

Long queues snaked outside the London terminal for the Eurostar train link between Britain, France and Belgium.

In Germany, frustration boiled over as a man killed his neighbour with a snow shovel.

In Brussels, the European Commission said it had summoned airport officials from around the continent to a meeting in coming days to seek explanations and "take a hard look" at ways of dealing with extreme weather in future.

"I am extremely concerned about the level of disruption to travel across Europe caused by severe snow. It is unacceptable and should not happen again," European transport commissioner Siim Kallas said.

British airport operator BAA defended itself against heavy criticism for the continuing closure of the second runway at Heathrow, Europe's busiest airport, despite the last major snowfall having been on Saturday.

Chief executive Colin Matthews said passengers should only come to the airport if their flight was confirmed, but added: "If it is, come to the airport and we will do our absolute best to give you a great experience."

Passengers queuing in the cold outside Heathrow's Terminal 3 were unimpressed by his comments.

"I think this hurts the reputation of the whole country. The airport is the first experience you have and this is not a good experience," Gustaf Malmstrom, 23, told AFP as he tried for a fifth day to get a flight to Stockholm.

"I have worked at an airport in Sweden and I've never seen such an unprofessional way of treating passengers as I have here."

The terminal was only letting in people who were flying on Tuesday morning, mainly on flights to Asia, while others had to queue outside. Airport workers handed out silver blankets and set up two heated marquees.

Gatwick, London's second airport, reopened its runway at 6:00 GMT although further delays and cancellations were inevitable, a spokesman said.

Eurostar said it was running a restricted service and asked all customers booked to travel before Christmas to refund or exchange their tickets free of charge if their journey is not essential.

The queue of passengers stretched for more than a kilometre around the imposing St Pancras station, although it seemed to be moving faster than on previous days.

"This is the longest queue I have been in in my life," said George Gow, 20, an American student, trying to get to Paris.

Volunteers from the Salvation Army -- a charity which normally helps the homeless in Britain -- handed out cups of tea and coffee to those waiting in the cold.

In Germany, fresh snowfall caused gridlock at the country's main airport Frankfurt with no flights taking off or landing for around three and a half hours in the morning.

By the time it reopened at around 0800 GMT, 300 of the 1,300 daily flights at Europe's third-largest airport were cancelled, a spokesman told AFP, while others were diverted to Munich in southern Germany.

More than 1,000 travellers spent the night at Frankfurt airport, which laid out camp beds and distributed drinks, sandwiches and soft buttered pretzels.

Meanwhile a German man smashed his neighbour over the head with a shovel, killing him on the spot, after a heated argument over who was responsible for removing snow from the joint entrance to their properties.

The victim, a father of two, "was so badly injured that he died on the spot," Lutz Flassnoecker, a police spokesman, following the attack in the tiny town of Schnellenbach, western Germany.

In France, authorities allowed the two main airports in Paris, Charles de Gaulle and Orly, to remain open around the clock to clear the backlog of delayed flights.

One hundred civil security personnel had been sent on Monday evening with 300 beds and 2,500 blankets for those still stranded at Charles de Gaulle.

A strike by airport security staff in the southern city of Marseille -- although it was spared the snow -- caused further chaos.

 

Last Updated (Tuesday, 21 December 2010 16:30)

 

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