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Wintry Weather Disrupts Holiday Travel In Europe

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

For hundreds of thousands of people, including quite a few Americans, this holiday season is off to a terrible start. They are travelers caught up in the arctic weather now gripping much of Europe.

NPR's Philip Reeves reports from one of the hardest hit areas - London.

PHILIP REEVES: The British love nothing more than moaning about the weather. For once they actually have good cause. The last time they saw this much snow was three decades ago. It's causing havoc. Britain has Europe's busiest air hub - London Heathrow. Over the last three days, the peak of the holiday season, this giant airport's barely been operating.

Ms. COLETTE HUME (Reporter, BBC): I'm at terminal three. I'm currently in the departure hall and it is an absolutely horrible and miserable scene.

REEVES: Colette Hume, a BBC reporter, spent a day waiting to fly to Australia.

Ms. HUME: There are thousands of people here, many of whom have been here for more than two days. Everywhere you look, as I walk along this departure hall, there are people in tears. There are groups of people being spoken to by airport staff. There are lots of people on mobile phones. There's one lady I've just seen, had her head down on the information desk and was sobbing.

REEVES: Jenny Wilson(ph) is an American based in Germany. She's surprised Heathrow can't cope with these conditions.

Ms. JENNY WILSON: I'm just floored that they don't have any infrastructure to deal with it. I guess this is uncommon for England, but this, I think, is the second year in a row that there's been problems. And I think they really need to assess and reevaluate.

REEVES: Wilson traveled to London this weekend to catch a show. She says she's been told by the airline there are no available return flights until after Christmas. Many travelers have similar stories. The problems aren't confined to Britain. Many flights were delayed or canceled today around northern Europe. It's not just airports. Passengers lined up for more than seven hours in London this afternoon for delayed Eurostar trains to Paris. The weather's shut down schools and roads across the region.

Mr. PHILIP HAMMOND (Transport Minister, Great Britain): Winters such as this year's and last have been rare in modern Britain.

REEVES: The disruption's so severe, it prompted Britain's transport minister, Philip Hammond, to make a statement to Parliament.

Mr. PHILIP HAMMOND (Transport Minister, Great Britain): We need to consider whether we are now seeing a step change in our weather that might justify investment in equipment and technologies to reduce the impacts of severe temperature and heavy snowfall.

REEVES: Hammond says he wants an explanation from Heathrow's private operators over what's gone wrong. You can tell how serious a national issue this has become in Britain when it merits an editorial in The Times of London. The newspaper today accused Britain's airports of incompetence and being ill prepared. Passengers can expect more delays and cancellations over the next few days, perhaps through Christmas. There are big backlogs and tonight it's snowing again.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.