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Battle with the weather continues at Heathrow

posted 20 Dec 2010, 10:44 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 20 Dec 2010, 10:48 ]

Staff at Heathrow Airport battle the elements in order to clear a huge backlog of passengers.

Snow and freezing temperatures grounded flights at Heathrow on Monday (December 20), with travellers trying to get away for Christmas set to be frustrated further with more severe weather on the horizon.

British Airways, which is losing up to 10 million pounds ($15.5 million) a day according to analysts, said arctic conditions would continue to cause major disruption to its operations and that more travel chaos was possible.

The vast majority of BA's profit comes from its operations out of London's Heathrow airport.

BA said Heathrow airport would only be using one of its two runways on Tuesday (December 21) -- as on Monday -- meaning the airport would be operating at a significantly reduced capacity.

It cancelled all short-haul flights after midday on Monday and some long-haul services.

"Look if someone could just throw a switch at midnight tonight and all the runways were open, all the stands were de-iced, everything was working normally and the airport could go through 24 hour operation between now and Christmas Eve, then there's a good chance that most people will get where they need to be before the 25th of December. That simply isn't going to happen. We've had two days of pretty totally shutdown, stranding 400 000 people, probably another 100 000 today who were booked but didn't travel. That's half a million so far and the longer it goes on, the worse it's going to get," said travel expert, Simon Calder.

Other carriers at Heathrow such as Virgin Atlantic, Cathay Pacific and Qantas Airways have also been forced to cancel flights in recent days.

Flight disruption was not only occurring in the UK. Over 1,000 flights at Germany's main airports were cancelled and many more delayed after up to 40 cm of fresh snow blanketed the country on Monday, though Lufthansa said it was confident it would operate a full service by Wednesday.

Air France said there were serious delays to passenger flights and cargo operations at the two main Paris airports, Charles de Gaulle and Orly, following a snowstorm earlier on Monday.

Brussels airport said on its twitter feed that it could not guarantee de-icing of planes after 1400 GMT on Monday due to a shortage of de-icer caused by transport problems in France.

Eurocontrol, the umbrella group for air-traffic control across 38 countries, estimates more 22,500 flights across Europe flights will be cancelled on Monday.

Shares in BA and Lufthansa were 1.5 percent and 0.8 percent down by 1545 GMT as the weather hampered operations in one of the busiest weeks of the year for air travel.

London's mayor Boris Johnson called for a "Herculean effort" by Heathrow operator BAA and its contractors to get planes back in the air.

Britain's Met Office said it expected "freezing temperatures and light to heavy snow" around Heathrow on Monday afternoon, with further snow expected on Tuesday morning.

BAA, owned by Spain's Ferrovial, expects more flights to leave Heathrow on Monday than on Sunday, despite forecasts for more severe weather, but urged customers not to travel to the airport unless they have a confirmed booking on one of the flights that is operating.

"The problem is that the snow that came in on Saturday (December 18) snowed in over 200 planes that are in the stands and because of the size of the planes it meant that it was simply impossible to clear the average 30 tons of snow around each plane. What you're seeing behind us is the clear up operation continuing as our specialist teams of vehicles are moving snow and moving ice but obviously we've got snow coming down around us and freezing temperatures all afternoon so it's going to be quite a difficult job keeping things open. And we do expect further disruption as the week continues," said BAA spokesman, Andrew Teacher.

BA said it was aiming to run as many flights as it could from Gatwick, south of London, and the smaller London City airport in the east of the city.

A BA spokeswoman said it was too early to give any estimates on the likely cost of the disruption. The airline said it lost around 15 to 20 million pounds a day in passenger and freight revenue during the Icelandic ash closure.

BA has had a tough year, with a series of strikes by cabin crew costing in 150 million pounds and the dispute unresolved.