European Airlines Battle to Add Flights as Snows Ease

European Airlines Struggle to Add Flights as Snowfalls Ease
British Airways built its timetable around earlier advice that Europe’s busiest airport would be limited to one-third of flights until tomorrow morning. Photographer: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

British Airways Plc is struggling to restore flights at its London Heathrow hub even as runways are cleared of snow and ice that closed airports and snarled Europe’s road and rail networks for the past four days.

While Heathrow is operating at about 70 percent of capacity today, according to owner BAA Ltd., British Airways built its timetable around earlier advice that Europe’s busiest airport would be limited to one-third of flights until tomorrow morning.

“It takes some time to rebuild an operation of our size and complexity at very short notice,” British Airways said in a statement. The carrier aims to operate all long-haul Heathrow flights tomorrow plus the “vast majority” of European services.

BAA Chief Executive Officer Colin Matthews said he’ll forgo an unspecified annual bonus following the disruption and will focus on “rebuilding confidence” in Heathrow as the Christmas holidays add to the volume of passengers. Thousands of air, rail and road travelers remain marooned across Europe in the wake of blizzards that produced Britain’s worst early snow in 17 years.

“We’re expecting a unique demand for tickets,” said Berthold Huber, chief of long-distance operations for German state-owned railway Deutsche Bahn AG. The Berlin-based company plans to add extra trains from today to help cope with passenger loads inflated by flight cancellations, he said.

Bigger Planes

British Airways said passengers should continue to avoid travelling to Heathrow today unless they have confirmation that their flight will operate. It aims to boost capacity on short-haul routes tomorrow and Christmas Eve by operating wide-body planes where possible, having today flown 275-seat Boeing Co. 777s to cities including Paris, Amsterdam and Madrid.

“This is a huge logistical task but we won’t stop working until we fill our aircraft with as many customers as possible,” CEO Willie Walsh said. “Teams are working round the clock to get as many people where they want to be ahead of Christmas day.”

Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd., the U.K.’s second-biggest long-haul carrier, said on its website that 24 flights would operate to and from Heathrow today, or 60 percent of the usual total. The 16 flights canceled include trips to and from Miami, San Francisco and Tokyo, according to a statement last night.

There’s still a “massive backlog” of flights at Heathrow and passengers should expect continued disruption as the schedule returns to normal next week, Virgin said today. The airline will confirm tomorrow’s timetable at 8 p.m. London time.

BMI, Heathrow's second-biggest operator, said it restored a full service there, becoming the first U.K. carrier to do so.

Cathay Rescue

Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. added three services from the U.K. to Hong Kong to help rescue stranded passengers. The Asian carrier transported people by bus from London to catch a flight in Manchester, northern England, last night, and will provide a further service there today, plus an extra trip from Heathrow.

Manchester airport has so far avoided long-term closures during the cold spell that began in late November, and said today it received 26 flights that were diverted from southern England and 10 that had been headed to Paris and Frankfurt. Qatar Airways Ltd., Delta Air Lines Inc., Emirates and Etihad Airways also added extra outbound flights, the airport said.

Ryanair Holdings Plc, Europe’s largest discount carrier, said it has added 14 flights in Belgium, France, Ireland and Poland, as well as the U.K., to help clear a passenger backlog.

Though skies cleared in some parts of the U.K., snow was forecast to fall in Wales and northwest England throughout the day and until at least mid-afternoon in the Midlands and eastern England, according to the Met Office’s website. The state-funded organization also warned of “widespread icy roads.”

Travel Peak

Birmingham and East Midlands airports, which lie within the snow band, remain open, according to their websites, though passengers are again advised to contact their airline before setting off. In Scotland, Edinburgh airport said that flights are operating with some delays and cancellations, while Dublin airport reopened this morning following more than 15 centimeters (6 inches) of snow yesterday, according to its website.

The peak day for road travel in the U.K. will be tomorrow, according to the Automobile Association, Britain’s biggest car-rescue service. The company said Dec. 20 was the busiest day in its 105-year history, with more than 28,000 breakdowns.

Paris’s Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports are open today, though flight delays remain possible, operator Aeroports de Paris said in a statement. With more snow forecast, Air France scrapped 15 percent of medium-haul flights at the terminals from 5 p.m. through midnight, plus a quarter of tomorrow’s schedule.

Deutsche Lufthansa AG expects “almost regular” operations within Germany and across Europe as the weather improves, said a spokeswoman, Bettina Rittberger.

Eurostar Delays

Channel Tunnel rail operator Eurostar Group Ltd. said on its website that a “near normal” timetable should operate today, with the proviso that only passengers holding tickets will be able to travel.

The first trains to Brussels and Paris left London on time today, though services will likely depart late and journey times will be longer as speed restrictions remain in place on some parts of the network. Delays were so severe yesterday that a line of passengers snaked 600 meters around London’s St Pancras station and the British Red Cross handed out blankets.

U.K. long-distance train company East Coast, which links London with Edinburgh via Leeds and Newcastle upon Tyne, also anticipates a near-normal service today. French rail operations largely returned to schedule yesterday as snowstorms eased.

The gradual reopening of Europe’s airports and railway lines has come too late for many travelers.

Howard Rubel, a New York-based analyst at Jefferies & Co., had planned to spend Christmas on safari in Africa before his flights via Europe were canceled. After scanning schedules for alternative routes Rubel says he failed to find seats for his family and instead opted for a vacation in Florida.

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