Forget dreams of a white Christmas. On Tuesday, millions of stranded travelers in Europe faced another day of being trapped in a Noël nightmare, as severe weather continued to disrupt air, rail, and road transportation and threatened to do so through the holiday weekend.
The chaos first broke out late last week, when heavy snowfall brought movement in many European cities to a crawl. By Dec. 21, the Continent was still in slow mode, as early morning flurries forced Frankfurt's airport to temporarily close. That had followed disturbances at Germany's busiest air hub on Monday, when 376 of its total 1,400 flights were canceled. Things were even worse Tuesday at London's Heathrow airport Europe's air-traffic leader which allowed just 30% of flights to leave, and warned travelers the situation wouldn't improve before Wednesday at the earliest. By contrast, some relief was expected Tuesday at Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports that serve Paris. Warming weather and extended hours of operation at both platforms allowed airlines to begin absorbing the 30% of flights that had been canceled over the past four days. That respite may be short-lived, however, with new snowstorms forecast for France and much of Europe by Thursday.
Several days of icy conditions have created a growing mass of marooned and increasingly cheesed off voyagers turned foul-weather refugees. Thousands of people have been camped out at Heathrow since the weekend, in the hopes of being able to jump on one of the few departing planes. Despite the improving situation in Paris, meanwhile, 3,000 travelers were forced to spend Monday night at Charles de Gaulle, with another 400 bivouacked at Orly. And the turmoil doesn't stop there. Even fully-functioning airfields elsewhere in Europe are experiencing heavy delays, as they take on scores of diverted planes and their hoards of stranded passengers.
That knock-on affect was also felt on Europe's railway system the option to which grounded air travelers have turned in vast numbers. On Monday at London's St. Pancras station, the line to buy Eurostar train tickets to the continent had snaked for over a kilometer; on Tuesday, it wasn't much shorter. Snow and ice had forced Eurostar to cancel 13 of its 52 trains on Monday alone, while locomotives on all its high-speed rail lines between Paris, Brussels, and London were operating at lower speeds than usual.
Europe's snowy situation will come with a heavy price tag. British Airways says the delays are costing it around $100 million daily, while Air France puts the loss by the current snow disruption and one earlier this month at between $31 million and $52 million. According to reports, stores in the U.K. are reporting a 20% to 25% decline in sales that they blame on shoppers preferring to stay home rather than hazard the icy conditions. Once hotels, resorts, tour operators, and restaurants calculate the revenue lost from tourists never turning up as expected, the total hit from The Big Chill 2010 will almost certainly exceed $1 billion.
With cities across Europe clearly being caught out by the snow, the big question is: Why weren't they better prepared? News reports are littered with everyone from infuriated travelers to political leaders expressing vexation and amazement that several inches of snow is enough to bring western Europe's major capitals to a halt especially when cities like Moscow, Stockholm, and New York City regularly function fine under several feet of powder. And even if London and Paris aren't used to snow, some critics mocked, officials should have been able to come up with ways of dealing with it once it fell. "It can't be beyond the wit of man, surely, to find the shovels, the diggers, the snow-ploughs or whatever it takes to clear the snow out from under the planes to get the planes moving," London Mayor Boris Johnson told wire services Monday.
Perhaps, but experts say financial logic explains Western Europe's limited resources to respond to the unusual snowfalls and the unwillingness to ask travelers and taxpayers to pay to improve them. The currently snow-blocked western European capitals don't experience enough of such weather to merit heavy investment in the kinds of expensive clearing equipment that cities habituated to lots of the white stuff use on a regular basis. That's especially true when most governments have embraced serious austerity plans that cut back on programs and services their citizens use every day.
The bottom line, experts say, is that for airports and airlines in more temperate climates to finance that kind of foul-weather infrastructure, passengers will have to pick up those costs in higher ticket prices. That price hike might be something that marooned voyagers say they're willing to accept now but they might not be so hot on that extra cost once the snow melts.