Big freeze slams air traffic in Europe
02 December 2010, 10:13
Geneva - Heavy snow and subzero temperatures swept across Europe, closing major airports in Britain and Switzerland, causing hundreds of highway accidents and killing at least eight homeless people in Poland.
Gatwick, London's second largest airport, and Geneva, a major hub for low-cost carrier Easyjet, were forced to shut down on Wednesday as staff struggled to clear runways of snow. Edinburgh airport in Scotland, Leeds airport in northern England, and Chambery and Grenoble in southeastern France also were closed.
Eurocontrol, the central air control agency, reported severe flight delays in Brussels, Frankfurt, Munich, Vienna, Prague and Paris Orly.
In Poland, police said eight men died on Tuesday night after a bitter cold front roared in, with temperatures falling to around -20°. Police spokesperson Mariusz Sokolowski said the men, from different parts of the country, had been drinking. The eastern Polish city of Bialystok hit -26° on Tuesday night.
Winter weather caused around 2 000 accidents on German roads on Tuesday, officials said.
In northern Austria, police said a 69-year-old retiree froze to death overnight when he slipped on a snow-covered bridge on his way home from a funeral and lost consciousness.
France's DGAC civil aviation authority asked airlines to cancel 25% of scheduled flights out of Charles de Gaulle airport and 10% of flights out of Orly airport in Paris on Thursday. The authorities on Wednesday urged passengers flying out of the airports to check with their airlines.
Officials at Gatwick, south of London, said the airport would remain closed until early on Thursday, stranding about 600 flights that were expected to leave on Wednesday. Extra staff were working "around the clock" to clear the runways, and passengers were advised to check with their airline or Gatwick's website for updates.
Gatwick was under 13 to 15cm of snow on Wednesday morning and has seen continuous snowfall throughout the day, said spokesperson Andrea Hopkins, adding that she was unable to provide a current estimate.
Geneva's airport will be closed until at least Wednesday evening, a spokesperson said. The city has seen 25cm of fresh snow in the past 24 hours and many travellers unable to find a room spent the night in civil protection shelters.
Zurich, Switzerland's biggest airport, reported delays and cancelations on the day many VIPs, including former President Bill Clinton and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, were travelling to FIFA's headquarters to push their countries' bids to host the 2018 and 2022 football World Cups.
Airport spokesperson Sonja Zoechling said the presence of so many private jets and charter aircraft in Zurich meant the airport had to turn down requests on Wednesday for diverted landings.
Unusually cold air
Swiss weather agency Meteosuisse forecast more snow throughout the day as a low-pressure front centred over western Europe moves slowly eastward.
"We've got unusually cold air over large parts of the eastern Atlantic, and where that meets warm air coming for example from the Mediterranean you have a lot of snow," said meteorologist Heinz Maurer.
He predicted that snowfall would ease in central Europe by Thursday, but nights will remain extremely cold.
La Brevine, in northwestern Switzerland, recorded temperatures of -31° overnight, Maurer said.
Even the undersea Channel Tunnel was hit with travel delays due to the snow. Six Eurostar trains to and from London were cancelled and delays on other services were expected.
In Ireland, flights from Dublin airport were temporarily suspended early on Wednesday while thick snow and ice was cleared from a main runway.
With many schools closed and minor roads impassable due to snow, authorities urged drivers to stay home unless absolutely necessary. Grocery chain Tesco said the cold snap had seen a rise in sales of whiskey - often served warm in winter - and hot chocolate.
Nine regions in northwest and southeast France were put on a weather alert, warning of snow and ice until Thursday morning. SNCF, France's national railway, said traffic on the main southeast routes had been affected by heavy snow, but 80% of its high-speed trains were still running.
In Poland, police were carrying out patrols to find homeless people and get them into shelters. The bad weather was also blamed for a collision between a tram and a car that killed one person in Szczecin.
Further south, some 300 people were evacuated from their homes in the northern part of Montenegro because of heavy rains. Authorities in the town of Berane said dozens of homes and roads were flooded and more evacuations were likely.
Neighbouring Albania declared a state of emergency due to widespread flooding in Shkodra district, 120km northwest of the capital, Tirana, along the Drini River delta.
Hydroelectric power generated from the river covers the bulk of Albania's energy needs. Prime Minister Sali Berisha says the flooding has resulted in an increase of energy output.