21 Dec 2010

Snow and ice expected in the UK until Boxing Day

Forecasters say freezing weather conditions are likely to remain until after Christmas, as a passenger tells Channel 4 News there is “solidarity” in the airport queues.

Reuters picture

Heathrow has asked passengers not to travel to the airport unless their airline has confirmed they will be able to fly, as it was still operating a reduced schedule. Thousands of people were stranded at the airport on Monday, and BAA said it was unable to accept any more people at the “extremely congested” Terminals 1 and 3.

The airport’s second runway is currently being cleared. A statement on its website said it was “truly sorry for the disruption the weather is causing to our passengers. We are doing everything we can to get you on your journey.”

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In a statement, the airport’s operator BAA warned that passengers should expect there to be delays and cancellations “potentially beyond Christmas Day.” It said that many areas of the airfield would not be usable until Wednesday morning at the earliest.

BAA chief executive Colin Matthews has promised a thorough investigation into events at Heathrow.

“When we have got every passenger and every bag where they want to be, we will crawl all over this incident to find out everything that we should learn from it,” he told Channel 4 News. “If we need to spend money on new equipment, we will do so.”

Flights resumed at Gatwick

At Gatwick, 150 staff were working to clear snow and de-ice the planes overnight, as flights resumed at 6am. However, the airport warned that knock-on delays and cancellations were likely to continue, and advised passengers to check their airline’s website to confirm they would be able to fly before setting off.

'I can't face another day in the airport' - a traveller's tale
One passenger told Channel 4 News he and his wife had given up on their plans to go to Canada to visit her family for Christmas after queuing at Heathrow for days. "It is disappointing, but it could be worse," Paul Lomax said.
After queuing for days, they waited from 6am yesterday until 2pm, when they decided to give up and go home.
"Having spent three days there, when we were on our feet for seven or eight hours carrying all our hand luggage all the time, I just can't face another day in the airport.
"My wife is gutted she can't spend Christmas with her family, but unlike many other people we don't have to wait at the airport. There are people there who literally have nowhere to go, they are sleeping at the airport because they have to."
He said that at one point, the doors to the airport were locked and people were only let in if they had proof they were on a flight that was about to check in, but that the situation is starting to improve.
"Most people are calm, and the airport have finally put on free wifi and handed out free food and hot drinks to people there last night.
"There was real solidarity in the queues. If people were on their own and needed to go to the toilet, people would hold their place. There were some people getting food for each other. When we finally left, some people said it was sad, like losing a friend. You get used to seeing the same people every day for hours."

Eurostar has asked passengers to get their tickets refunded or exchanged free of charge if their travel is not essential to try and ease the pressure on the service. Yesterday, some people queued for up to eight hours at St. Pancras station in London. Speed restrictions have added up to two hours to journey times, so the company said it could not operate as many trains as planned.

The roads and rail network have also been affected by the bad weather, although transport secretary Philip Hammond said their performance had been “broadly satisfactory”. However, he warned that disruption was “inevitable” given the severity of the weather conditions, and that the transport system would “struggle to recover” in the days leading up to Christmas as more poor weather is expected.

Overnight, the lowest temperature in the UK was in Crosby, Merseyside, which fell to minus 17.6C, or 0.3F. Shap in Cumbria and Capel Curig in north Wales were nearly as cold, registering minus 15.4C, or 4F.

Forecasters said it should be dry for most of the country today, but that it was unlikely to be warm enough for the snow to start melting.

De-icing the aircraft

Channel 4 News has learnt from companies that supply airports with equipment, that the cost of a de-icing lorry alone could be as much as £300,000. This breaks down as around £85,000 for the chassis, then “in excess of” £200,000 for the body of the van, which would be custom-made to specifications provided by the airport. These can be bought more cheaply, but many choose to buy “premium” products which are more expensive, according to one supplier. Each of these would then have to be filled with a full tanker load of de-icer, but Univar, the supplier of de-icing fluid for Heathrow and other airports told Channel 4 News they could not estimate how much that would cost as it would vary depending on the specific requirements of the company. They declined to give a rough price.

A snowplough, such as the one used by many airports in the UK would generally cost between £20,000 and £25,000.

Channel 4 News discovers that Heathrow has cut its snow defence spending. Read more: Heathrow cut snow defence spending by two-thirds