Minister promises inquiry as travellers stranded again in 'third world' Britain

AN inquiry will be held into the way stranded passengers were treated at Heathrow airport over the weekend, Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said today as severe weather continued to disrupt the travel plans of people across the country.

Irate holidaymakers left stranded by Arctic conditions that brought airports to a halt likened conditions to those of a "third-world country".

Mr Hammond said airports had been hit by extreme weather conditions and he did not want to "distract" management attention from efforts to clear a "huge" backlog of flights by carrying out investigations now into what happened over the last few days.

But he said that once the problems were over, there had to be a "discussion" about what went wrong - including how passengers were treated once flights were disrupted.

He said: "Once we have got through the problem, once we have got things moving again, then we will have to have that discussion and find out exactly what went wrong and, most importantly, what went wrong in handling passengers who were stranded.

"I think whilst people are obviously deeply upset about the inconvenience, particularly at this time of year, of having their travel plans disrupted, most of what I am hearing is a sense of outrage about the way they were then treated when they were stranded at Heathrow airport."

In Yorkshire this morning, rail commuters faced delays on routes between London, Manchester, Scarborough, Huddersfield, Bristol and Ilkley.

Mr Hammond's remarks come amid complaints about a lack of information for passengers and reports of elderly people sleeping overnight in Heathrow airport without food or warmth.

BAA spokesman Andrew Teacher admitted: "There have been problems and we are extremely sorry for those, and that is something we will obviously have to look at, along with the airlines, about how we communicate, because the issue we have at Heathrow is that while there are 77,000 people working there, they are not all employed by BAA, so there is a limited degree to which we can control things.

"But obviously we are not trying to shun responsibility here, we are trying to look at what we are doing and focus on the situation now."

Pressed on the levels of preparedness for this winter, Mr Hammond said: "Let us be clear, this morning, the railway networks are broadly operating.

"I am not saying there are not some delays, of course there, one or two minor branch lines closed, some disruption on the East Coast Main Line because of problems with overhead wires. But the railways are broadly operating, the strategic road network is open and operating.

"The big problems have been at the airports and in the air. We don't own the airports and we don't own the airlines, but we do liaise with them and last Thursday both Heathrow and Gatwick airports had full stocks of de-icing fluid. They had all the equipment in place that they planned to have, so it wasn't that they didn't have the stuff there."

He said: "What went wrong is that we have had very extreme weather conditions and aviation, quite rightly, is a safety first business. If there is any danger, aircraft don't move and the conditions at Heathrow have made it very, very difficult for aircraft and aviation to operate over the last few days.

"Not just at Heathrow, by the way. There have been problems, albeit on a lesser scale, across the whole of northern Europe."

The Transport Secretary's remarks came as temperatures plunged overnight, with a record low for Northern Ireland seen in Castlederg, County Tyrone, where the mercury plunged to minus 17.6C. The lowest UK temperature overnight was thought to be minus 19.6C, recorded in Chesham, Buckinghamshire.

Forecasters have said the UK is experiencing some of the most severe winter weather in a century, with continued sub-zero temperatures and snowfalls of up to eight inches (20cm) expected today.

Motoring organisations have warned of "potentially fatal" conditions on the roads as commuters struggle into work, with others hoping to make an early start to their Christmas holidays.

Only about 20 flights were able to take off or land at Heathrow yesterday out of 1,300 flights that usually go through the airport in a day.

Heathrow was running a "limited schedule of arrivals and departures" from 6am, a spokeswoman said, but disruption is expected for days to come.

Gatwick Airport is open, with operations "returning to normal", but passengers have been warned to contact their airline before travelling as delays and cancellations are set to continue.

Mayor of London Boris Johnson has questioned BAA chief executive Colin Matthews about the situation at Heathrow, asking if everything possible had been done to get the airport moving.

He said: "I stressed the huge economic importance of Heathrow. If there was a war on, we'd surely be able to sort this out.

"I also expressed my hope that they would pull out all the stops to ensure that the planes get moving again.

"Most people realise that it has not snowed at Heathrow for some time so it is vital everything is done to get the aircraft and passengers moving again."

The mayor has also been in talks with Transport for London (TfL) all weekend.

Shadow chancellor Alan Johnson has hit out at the Government's handling of the situation, saying people felt they had been told to "get a shovel or stay at home".

Passengers were unforgiving, despite airports saying they were doing all they could.

Trevor Taylor, 37, waiting for a flight to Singapore with his wife and two young sons, described the scene at Heathrow's Terminal 5 as "absolute mayhem".

Mr Taylor said: "Frustration is building up. I've been sleeping on a knobbly marble floor and every space you can see is taken."

Singer Lily Allen was among those caught up in delays at Heathrow, writing on Twitter before her flight left: "Terminal 3 carnage. Apparently our flight is going today. Lots of tinfoil blankets all over the place. Departures is a ghost town."

Eurostar services have also been affected, with an emergency timetable in operation for the rest of the week. A Eurostar spokesman urged passengers not to travel unless it was absolutely necessary, with refunds or rescheduled tickets available to those who could postpone their journey. Speed restrictions on Eurostar services were also adding up to two hours to journey times.

Train operator East Coast has warned passengers there will be longer journey times and cancellations throughout the day. Yesterday all services were suspended between King's Cross, London, and Peterborough due to damage to overhead power lines.

Aisling Creevey, a forecaster with MeteoGroup, the weather division of the Press Association, said: "There are temperatures of minus 14C and minus 15C quite widely across the UK, with no let-up in sight.

"We will be seeing figures like this over the next night or two, with significant snowfalls forecast for Wednesday."

She added that Chesham enjoyed a high of 29.3C in the summer months, meaning it has seen a huge temperature range in 2010.

Those hoping for a white Christmas may be disappointed, with the weather for Christmas Day set to be "wet and windy", she said.

British Airways said Heathrow had only one of its two runways operational and "many areas of the airfield remain unusable, including areas around parked aircraft".

The airline said it was operating "a limited schedule of flights" to and from Heathrow this morning and had published a schedule until noon.

BA said: "We are awaiting further updates from BAA before publishing the schedule for the remainder of the day. Customers should continue to check their flight status as more snow is forecast this afternoon, which could cause further disruption to airport operations.

"We would urge customers not to travel to the airport unless they have a confirmed booking on one of the flights that is operating.

"Customers whose travel is not essential are encouraged to cancel their flight, in return for a full refund, or to consider changing their flight to another date over the next 12 months."

BA said that at Gatwick airport and at London City Airport it was aiming "to run as many flights as possible, although there is a reduced operation as a result of the weather disruption".

BA added: We are extremely sorry that customers are being inconvenienced and understand how frustrating this is. Our staff are working around the clock to do everything they can to help. We ask customers for their patience and understanding."

The severity of the weather and a series of broken-down trains affected many rail services and also caused some disruption to London Underground trains.

On the main line, a number of trains were axed in Scotland, Wales, eastern England and on suburban routes in south-west London and Surrey.

On the London to Scotland East Coast Main Line, some London-Leeds and London-York services were cancelled.

There were long queues at St Pancras station in London for Eurostar services to Paris and Brussels.

The company said the hold-ups to get checked in were due to people arriving early for their trains. One customer described the scenes as "chaotic".

There were severe delays on the Tube's Metropolitan line, while the morning rush-hour was made worse by the closure, for a time, of a section of the M4 in west London after a vehicle overturned.

In Somerset and Devon, the M5 was restricted to a single lane northbound and southbound because of heavy snowfall, making conditions difficult for motorists.

Heavy snow forced one of the main routes into Devon to close for the third winter in a row.

This comes despite an emergency response plan being put in place.

A motorist trying to travel to work from Newton Abbot to Exeter said: "It's been complete chaos.

"The A380 has been closed from the Penn Inn roundabout as it looks like they didn't want people trying to even get to Exeter.

"I think there had been an incident with a lorry or something, so they closed the road completely to stop people travelling.

"Because the snow has fallen on to the icy roads it's really slippery so I've decided to come home - it's just not worth it.

"I heard on the radio that because there's been so much traffic the gritters have actually got stuck behind it all and can't get through. I think that's another reason they closed the road so the gritters could actually get through.

"The council keeps banging on about being prepared this year, but they've still had to close the major route into Exeter from Torbay for the third year running and in a busy rush hour."

A Highways Agency spokeswoman said: "At the moment I believe the A38 at Haldon Hill is still closed eastbound, but is moving very slowly westbound.

"As always we would urge people who are setting out to check on our website, or listen to the local radio or TV and decide if it really is necessary for them to make that journey."

Eurostar said services were being cancelled and "severely delayed" due to speed restrictions in England and France.

"We are running services but St Pancras is very busy today," said a Eurostar spokesman.

At King's Cross station in London, dense crowds packed the waiting area as trains were cancelled or delayed.

Queues for the platforms stretched back to the doors as passengers waited, suitcases in hand, to leave the capital.

National Grid said it was forecasting a record demand for gas today at 465.8 million cubic metres (mcm).

The highest demand so far this winter has been 456.6 mcm on December 2, it said, with the current all-time record at 465.5 mcm set on January 8 this year.

The company, which provides energy to millions of people across Britain, issued a "gas balancing" alert yesterday - the first of the winter - a routine "market tool", it said, to help keep a supply balance at times of high demand.

Healthy levels of electricity generation and gas available from a diverse range of sources has left supply and demand "balanced" despite current high demand levels due to the cold weather, it reported.

Despite the healthy supply position, the company said it had issued the first alert of the winter as the gas demand forecast for today was above the current trigger level of 452 mcm.

Chris Train, National Grid network operations director, said: "Increased demand for energy is an inevitable consequence of the cold weather as Britain shivers.

"However, we remain well supplied with gas and electricity, thanks to strong availability from a diverse range of sources.

"A gas balancing alert is a routine market tool and should not be a cause for concern.

"Although there is never room for complacency, we are not seeing anything that would prevent the market from continuing to balance supply and demand across the winter."