/ 2 February 2009

Snow closes Europe’s airports, schools, offices

Heavy snow disrupted air and rail travel in northern Europe on Monday, halting flights at London’s main airport entirely and bringing traffic in the British capital almost to a standstill.

Tens of thousands of commuters were advised not to attempt the journey into work in London, experiencing some of its worst snow in almost 20 years. Buses were taken off the roads and hundreds of schools were closed across the country, leaving children to play and build snowmen in parks and gardens.

”I’d rather be sledging than at school,” said seven-year-old Georgie Cunliffe, who was in a London park.

London Mayor Boris Johnson suspended the congestion charge for motorists in the centre of the capital for Monday and appealed to higher powers to end the bad weather.

”My message to the heavens is — you have put on a fantastic display of snow power, and I think that is probably quite enough,” he told the BBC.

Conditions familiar to eastern Europe and other northerly countries notoriously pitch Britain into chaos, its infrastructure ill prepared for the cold.

Northern France also had difficulty as snow blanketed Paris and surrounding countryside bringing major air, rail and road systems to a halt.

London business leaders said the estimated cost to the British capital alone could be as much as £48-million in lost productivity.

All flights in and out of Heathrow, a major international hub, were cancelled for a period before a limited service resumed with long delays and cancellations. One of its two runways was closed.

A Cyprus Airways jet at Heathrow slipped off a taxiway after arriving from Larnaca but came to a safe halt. All 104 passengers escaped unharmed, airport authorities said.

”The plane had safely landed and was making its way to the stand and the front wheel went on to the grass area,” a spokesperson for airport operator BAA said. Passengers were bussed to the terminal and there were no injuries.

British Airways (BA) called off all its short-haul flights for the rest of the day.

However, a BA customer service agent told Mail & Guardian Online that two BA flights were still scheduled to depart from OR Tambo International in Johannesburg to Heathrow on Monday night.

‘To my knowledge, no flights from Johannesburg to London have been cancelled. Flight BA 056 and flight BA 054 will depart for Heathrow tonight if the weather permits,” BA customer service agent Aljarreau Fasasie said.

BA refunds department agent Lerato Dikgole said they are advising customers to regularly check the airline’s website in case there are any flight changes. ‘If a flight has been cancelled, customers will be put on a later flight,” she said.

News24 earlier reported that Flight BA 043 departing from London to Cape Town had been cancelled, and that Flight BA 042 from Cape Town to London, scheduled to depart on Tuesday morning, had also been cancelled.

Meanwhile, London’s three other commercial airports reported severe delays and flight cancellations. London City Airport, which serves the financial district, was closed for the day.

Dublin, Cork and Belfast airports were also forced to cancel some flights and Gatwick, Stansted and Luton close to London, were badly hit.

Large parts of the city’s underground rail network were suspended, forcing commuters to walk or seek those taxis prepared to stay out on the roads.

Weather warning
Highway authorities warned of hazardous driving conditions in southern and central England and advised people not to drive unless absolutely necessary. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the government was ”doing everything in our power to ensure that the services, road, rail and airports, are open as quickly as possible”.

Britain’s Met Office said some parts of the country, including London and other parts of south east England, could be covered by up to 15cm of snow by midday on Monday.

It issued a ”severe weather” warning for large parts of the country, with weather experts saying south-east England was experiencing some of its worst snow since the early 1990s.

The international rail operator Eurostar also reported delays due to snow in Britain, France and Belgium.

Many workers attempted to walk to their offices, trudging through thick snow, but London’s Chamber of Commerce business organisation said lost productivity could cost the capital dear at a time when the British economy is already in recession.

In France, traffic jams were recorded on roads leading into the capital during the rush hour and the Paris transport authority said many buses had to be cancelled.

So far, this winter has been Britain’s coldest in more than a decade and forecasters expect the cold weather to continue for several more days with freezing winds blowing in from Russia. — Reuters