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European airports race to clear Christmas travel backlog

Snow forecasts across much of Europe Thursday threatens to paralyze travel again just as airline and rail operators were making progress in clearing a backlog of passengers stranded after wintry precipitation earlier this week.


AFP - Snowbound European airports raced to clear a backlog of stranded passengers as better weather conditions allowed them to begin frantic efforts to get people home for Christmas.

In London, Paris and Frankfurt, the continent's busiest airports were running a slimmed-down schedule in a bid to get thousands of weary travellers to their destinations before Christmas Day on Saturday.

Airport officials were under increasing pressure to resolve the crisis after the European Union blasted the "unacceptable" disruption, with the head of Heathrow's operator BAA saying he would not take his yearly bonus.

Around 1,000 passengers spent the night at London Heathrow, the world's busiest international passenger airport, in the hope of flying out after days of cancelled flights and frustration.

"We're running 70 percent of our normal planned schedule, which accounts for around 900 flights," a Heathrow spokeswoman told AFP.

"The airport is fully operational and it's now a situation of airlines getting aircraft and crew in the right place," she said, adding that 30,000 tonnes of snow had been shifted from the airport's apron.

Heathrow was "absolutely" aiming to get everyone away in time for Christmas", the spokeswoman said, adding however that "we can't give any guarantees."British Airways said it had put on extra flights in a bid to fly "tens of thousands" of customers to their destinations before Christmas after having to cancel 2,000 flights during five days of "very severe" disruption.

It aimed to operate a full long-haul schedule on Thursday and Friday and said it hoped to run the "vast majority" of short-haul flights.

"Our teams are working around the clock to get as many people where they want to be ahead of Christmas Day and we are doing all we can to increase the number of seats available," chief executive Willie Walsh said.

Eurocontrol, the continent's air traffic supervisory body, said about 3,000 flights had been cancelled across Europe on Tuesday, with similar numbers of cancellations for each of the previous four days.

Weather reports said snow could persist in northern Europe even as the situation improved further south.

Colin Matthews, the head of Heathrow's operator BAA, said he would not take his bonus for 2010 after union chiefs said accepting the payment would be an "absolute slap in the face" to stranded passengers.

At Paris-Charles de Gaulle, continental Europe's busiest airport, 15 percent of flights were cancelled late Wednesday as snow flurries were forecast, while the schedule was to be slashed by 20 percent throughout Thursday.

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