Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas cancelled for thousands

A few centimetres of snow and low temperatures has brought Britain to a virtual standstill with thousands forced to cancel travel plans or put them on hold. The cold weather is also making the festive season miserable as they try to keep warm and worry about rising heating costs.

Flight delays

Four days after snow hit the south-east of England thousand of passengers remained stranded at Heathrow airport. Gatwick and London City airport has also seen problems, but the worst of the disruption was at London's busiest airport. On Monday only a handful of flights departed and airport authorities were only allowing those with confirmed flights to enter the building. 

The worst scenes were at terminal 3 where hundreds of passengers were spending their third day waiting for their flight to leave. Terminal 5 was less chaotic on Monday, but there was just as much confusion and as many scenes of disappointment. Staff were only allowing those into the building whose flights were expected, on-schedule or delayed. But even after entering into the fast space there was confusion with few announcements over the public-address system and only a skeleton staff answering passengers' questions.

Those under the impression their flight was leaving joined very long queues to drop off their checked-in baggage. Some queued for up to two hours before arriving at the desk only to find their flight had, in the mean time, been cancelled. Some found out their plans had been scuppered as they were still in the queue as announcements came over the Tannoy. Two young women looked extremely distressed after it was announced the New York flight had been dropped. Making a phone call, one wept uncontrollably, her mascara smeared as tears ran down her face. While tempers did not fray too much, there was nonetheless anger amongst many travellers sat around the terminal building. "This is f***ing ridiculous," one passenger told tvnewswatch, "I managed to make it all the way from Devon, but they can't even run a proper air service." Hoping to travel to Dubai, he was expecting his airline to arrange a different flight but he said he would probably lose several thousand pounds in lost business.

It was already midday when British Airways announced short haul flights had been cancelled. But by 14:00 the bad news came that most long haul flights would also be dropped. On the information board in terminal 5 only 9 flights showed as having taken off while everything after a US flight to Baltimore was cancelled.

Those arriving at the check-in desk to find their flight cancelled were offered only an apology and a standard letter explaining the situation and compensation on offer. "Due to severe weather disruption and air traffic control restrictions at London Heathrow and at airports overseas, we have had to cancel a large number of flights today," the letter said. The communique went on to offer apologies for not facilitating the rebooking of an alternate flight. Despite the freezing temperatures outside it then demanded passengers to leave the building. "Due to terminal restrictions and the current queue lengths we are experiencing, we are asking you to now leave the terminal building."

For many the only option was to rebook their flight for a later date. But due to the back log the first available flights were several days later. The first available date on some British Airways' flights was not until 29th December. There was of course the option of cancelling altogether and attempting to fly with a different airline on an earlier date, but that too could leave be affected by further delays or more snow. 

With plans and flights cancelled, passengers now had to find their way home. For some it meant a phone call to ask their friends or family to return to the airport. But for others the only option was a lengthy journey on public transport itself affected severely by the snow.

Trains disrupted

London's underground saw major problems affecting the Central, District and the Piccadilly line which serves Heathrow. South-West trains, South-East trains, the Chiltern line and First Capital Direct were also disrupted. And those attempting to make a getaway to Europe by train found themselves in massive queues of up to 8 hours after Eurostar began to run a restricted service. Passengers who managed to board a train were not always home and dry as some found themselves stranded for hours stuck on trains going nowhere.

Amid all the chaos, there has been widespread criticism of a lack of information. Airport authorities have been particularly lambasted about the lack of information. In addition media have been banned from all five terminals at Heathrow. Those taking photographs, even on camera-phones, have been confronted by BAA staff and in many cases asked to leave the building or wipe the images.

Nonetheless, the sheer number of people with smart-phones has resulted in a constant flow of video and stills images of the ongoing chaos. For BAA it is fast becoming a public relations' disaster. But the coalition government is also being criticised for not doing enough. Some have asked why British prime minister David Cameron or London's Mayor have failed to say or do more to tackle the transport problems faced by travellers. Last night the two politicians attended a ceremony where the flood lights at the Olympic stadium were switched on for the first time. Even that was delayed and failed to attract the enthusiasm that had been anticipated. When the lights were switched on they took some time to warm up, but Cameron still spoke with enthusiasm about the 2012 games and described the lighting as "fantastic". The construction of the Olympic stadium is an achievement, but as most of Britain grinds to a halt there is little excitement as many people's Christmas plans have been ruined [Papers / BBC / Sky / CNN]

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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