LONDON -

The European Union criticised airport operators yesterday for failing to deal adequately with the heavy snow and freezing weather that have closed runways, forced the cancellation of thousands of flights and left thousands of travellers stranded on the Continent.

Siim Kallas, the European Transport Commissioner, lashed out at airport managers and urged them to "get serious" about planning for cold weather like their counterparts in other parts of Europe.

He said airport infrastructure across most of western and central Europe had been unable to cope with the cold weather. "It seems at this stage that this is a weak link in a chain which, under pressure, is contributing to severe disruption."

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He threatened tougher regulation if performance did not improve. "Better preparedness, in line with what is done in northern Europe, is not an optional extra. It must be planned for and with the necessary investment."

The snow was melting off London streets yesterday, but Heathrow Airport told infuriated passengers it would not restore full service until today - five days after a 12cm snowfall turned hundreds of thousands of holiday plans into a nightmare of cancelled flights and painful nights sleeping on terminal floors.

Transport experts said that after many years without heavy snow, underinvestment had left Heathrow and dozens of other airports across Britain and Ireland without enough equipment or personnel to cope with big storms.

Aviation consultant Chris Yates said airport operators in Helsinki, Stockholm and other snowy climes had the equipment and manpower to clear runways within 30 minutes and to remove ice and snow from aircraft stands quickly.

This was evident in the days after Sunday's snowstorm, when airports in Frankfurt, Prague, Amsterdam and other cities in Europe bounced back slightly more quickly than Heathrow, where the ice quickly hardened, making removal more difficult.

London's Gatwick was hit by less snow and recovered faster than the larger Heathrow. Its runway reopened and flights were operating yesterday.

Even as the second of Heathrow's two runways reopened yesterday, officials said they needed "breathing space" to clear remaining snow, restart equipment and move planes and crews back into place. As a result, the airport would operate only about one-third of its normal flight schedule until tonight.

Thousands of air travellers continue to face severe disruption at airports across Germany, France, Holland and Belgium. Frankfurt Airport, the continent's largest, had to close for three hours on Tuesday because of a snowstorm.

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The cancellations caused a domino effect across the rest of Germany.

In France, officials were working to clear a backlog at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. There was similardisruption at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport and in Brussels.

Travellers attempting to avoid airport chaos by switching to trains fared no better. Eurostar passengers travelling from London to Belgium and France have been hit by mass cancellations brought about by rail speed restrictions.

In Germany, Deutsche Bahn, the national rail service, faced delays after speed limits were enforced to stop train undercarriages being damaged by blocks of ice.

Eurostar trains have been running with speed restrictions in both England and France.

Rail expert Christian Wolmar said Eurostar was being cautious after holiday-season breakdowns last year caused by powdery snow sucked into the engines of speeding trains.

The entire Eurostar service was halted for three days when trains got stuck in the Channel Tunnel.

"Eurostar ought to be ashamed of themselves," he said. "It would seem possible to put on extra trains, but they can't get the crews or they can't get the trains in place ... It's inexplicable."

- Independent, AP