Air travel halted by big freeze

PA – The Independent December 19, 2010



Widespread travel chaos caused by some of the severest winter weather for a century left Christmas commuter plans in tatters and swathes of the country paralysed today.

Delays and cancellations at a host of UK airports continued to hit thousands of passengers, while plummeting overnight temperatures left almost the entire road network caked in treacherous black ice.

After shutting yesterday, Heathrow said it would not be letting any flights land on its runway, with only a “handful” of departures taking place, pouring misery on hundreds of stranded people who were forced to spend the night in terminals.

Gatwick Airport reopened after planes were grounded for large period of yesterday, but widespread disruption was expected with officials advising passengers to check with their airline before travelling.

Stansted, Luton, Exeter, London City, Aberdeen, Birmingham, Bristol, Southampton, Cardiff and Birmingham airports also said flights would be subject to delays and cancellations.

A spokeswoman for Heathrow, which experienced temperatures of minus 5.2C overnight, said: “Heathrow Airport will not be accepting arrivals on Sunday, and will only manage a handful of departures as our airfield team continues to deal with the impacts of yesterday’s bad weather and prepares the airport for a full reopening on Monday.

“We are extremely sorry for the disruption this will cause to passengers and airlines and we stress that passengers must check with their airlines before travelling to the airport. We will provide regular updates.

“We have listened carefully to the advice of our airside operations team and have reluctantly judged that while Heathrow’s northern runway remains clear, the change in temperature overnight has led to a significant build-up of ice on parking stands around the planes and this requires the airfield to remain closed until it is safe to move planes around.”

The airport said several hundred people were working to treat airside areas and keep passengers in the terminal as warm and comfortable as possible.

“Safety is our first priority and we hope this course of action will allow us to offer a fuller service to passengers and airlines using Heathrow tomorrow,” added the spokeswoman.

Hundreds of thousands of Britons had been due to fly this weekend, with four million expected to go abroad, according to travel association Abta.

Singer Lily Allen was one of the travellers caught up in the chaos after boarding and then being forced to disembark from a plane at Heathrow yesterday.

US student Zack Robinson told BBC Radio 5 Live he sat on a plane for eight hours waiting to take off before being told it was cancelled.

Forecasters said the UK was hit by abnormally low temperatures overnight, with most parts of the country struggling to get over minus 5C.

The mercury dropped to minus 19C in Pershore in the Midlands, and minus 14C in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, while fresh snow fell in eastern England and Scotland.

Snow was today expected in northern and eastern Scotland and north-east England, with the Met Office issuing severe weather warnings.

Commuters were also warned of widespread icy roads in Wales, north-west England, the Midlands and the South.

Weather experts said temperatures would struggle to rise above freezing, meaning large accumulations of snow, which left many people stuck in their homes yesterday, would fail to clear.

Chaos was again expected on the roads and on rail networks today with the freeze showing little sign of relenting.

Aisling Creevey, forecaster at MeteoGroup, the weather division of the Press Association, said: “The majority of the country is already covered in ice and it will be a challenge again today even in areas where roads have been treated due to the low temperatures.”

Ms Creevy said today would be a dryer day but temperatures would stay “bitterly” cold into the end of next week, with more snow on its way.

Yesterday the icy conditions claimed at least another three lives – a girl in her early teens was killed in a sledging accident and a mother and her 10-year-old son died in a road crash.

Meanwhile, Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson and socialite Jemima Khan were among those left stranded after plunging temperatures crippled the transport network.

Broadcaster Clarkson was among those forced to abandon his car on an 18-mile journey from Oxford to his own home as snow brought vehicles to a standstill in Oxfordshire, with falls of up to 15cm.

“It was very bad out there,” he said. “I wasn’t stuck but everyone around me was. I thought, ‘I’m not going to get home tonight and it’s going to get dark’.”

The AA said it dealt with 16,000 calls yesterday, compared with 9,000 on an average Saturday pre-Christmas.

Train services continued to be hit today, with operators in the south, including Southeastern, South West Trains and Southern Railway, running reduced services.

A Department for Transport spokesman said: “The weather over the last 24 hours has been exceptionally severe. Government continues to monitor all aspects of the situation.”

Transport Secretary Philip Hammond spoke to representatives from the Met Office, the regions, devolved administrations and other government departments yesterday to ensure everything possible was being done, the spokesman said.

Mr Hammond also held talks with Mayor of London Boris Johnson.

According to the Met Office, snow falls this months have been the heaviest for December in nearly 20 years.

Forecaster Helen Chivers said: “You have to look back to December 1981 to find similar snow depths.”

If the second half of the month is as cold as the first, this will be the coldest December on record since 1910.

The sporting world also fell victim to the bad weather as race meetings were abandoned and football fixtures cancelled.

A Gatwick spokeswoman said although the airport remained open today, the weather’s impact on airline operations across Europe would inevitably lead to delays and cancellations.

“Today is Gatwick’s busiest day of the festive getaway and we are doing everything we can to get passengers on their way and aircraft in the air,” she said.

“However, passengers must check with their airline before setting out for the airport to reduce congestion and avoid disappointment. We also advise that passengers check with transport operators before planning their journey to the airport.”

Passenger Sue Kerslake and her three young grandchildren spent the night on a terminal floor at Heathrow after their flight to Hong Kong was cancelled.

She told the BBC she arrived at the airport at 8am yesterday, before sitting on a Cathay Pacific plane for seven hours before being told it was not taking off.

“We were told to get off the plane at 7.30pm and no one from the airline has dealt with us since,” she said.

“There were thousands of people in departures overnight and it got quite intense at times. The bars were open and some people were drinking and got quite nasty.”

Hundreds of stranded people also spent the night at Gatwick Airport, although flights started to recommence this morning.

Meanwhile Southeastern, Southern and South West rail operators said they planned to operate a normal Sunday service, although trains may be subjected to short notice alterations due to the weather.

Elizabeth Herridge was told her KLM flight from Heathrow to Amsterdam was going ahead as expected this morning, but was turned away from Terminal 4 when she arrived.

Ms Herridge, a communications worker, who was hoping to get away for Christmas, said: “I received a text alert from Heathrow at 5.30am this morning saying my 8.40am flight was running on time.

“I didn’t ignore it and turned up first thing, but I was greeted by a member of staff at the terminal doors asking why I was here as there were no flights coming in or out and to go home.

“There seems to be a lot of confusion and I have only seen one Heathrow worker. All the airline desks are shut because it is a Sunday – it’s absolutely ridiculous.”


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