Europe

How airport ice shock rattled Russia

Image caption The run-up to New Year saw thousands of passengers stranded at Russian airports

The UK's pre-Christmas travel chaos after a few centimetres of snow amused many Russians, who face much harsher winters with bravado.

But just before New Year the BBC's Katia Moskvitch found Moscow for once defeated by the winter, as freezing rain paralysed flights and stranded thousands of passengers at the capital's airports.

Here she describes how passengers endured their ordeal.

"I heard there would be some compensation for the cancelled and delayed flights, but I don't really care anymore. I just want to go home," said Svetlana, desperate after having bedded down on a piece of cardboard on the floor at Sheremetyevo airport.

Svetlana, 25, was travelling east to Barnaul from Moscow - a distance of nearly 3,000km (1,860 miles). Yet she thought she was lucky compared with those stuck at Domodedovo airport.

"I'm so glad I'm not at Domodedovo. There, at the beginning, people were spending the night in complete darkness, without heating or food, because of a power outage," she said.

The freezing rain brought tree branches laden with ice crashing down on power lines - and that caused a blackout at Domodedovo.

"At least here at Sheremetyevo we get free vouchers for the airport's restaurants," she said.

Kremlin steps in

President Dmitry Medvedev told prosecutors to investigate the delays and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin castigated transport officials at a tense meeting shown on Russian television.

Now the situation is almost back to normal, and the director of Sheremetyevo, Mikhail Vasilenko, even praised the airport employees' actions during the backlog.

Image caption Planes were stuck in Moscow because ground crew ran short of de-icing fluid

"I owe it to my workers who did extra overnight shifts, used their private cars and their own money to buy nappies for passengers' babies, delivered water and food and faced angry passengers without any information from airlines - just to explain the lack of information," he wrote in his blog.

When I arrived at Sheremetyevo from London, en route to Novosibirsk, I saw long lines of people waiting to check in.

Sergei, a middle-aged man, was trying to get to Perm in the Urals. He had been stuck at Sheremetyevo for four long days.

"They told me I would travel today, but I don't have much hope," he said.

Some scuffles were reported in the early days of the chaos, but for the most part passengers seemed resigned to their fate.

Information black hole

A young woman with a crying baby spent some 20 minutes trying to get an answer from an airport official about her flight to Murmansk, which had been repeatedly delayed since early morning.

"I don't understand, what's the point of delaying it by an hour and keeping us here? Why can't you just tell us that there won't be a flight until, say, tomorrow morning, and I'll go back home with my child and then come back?" she asked the man in uniform, her voice breaking with sobs.

But the official refused to answer - and refused to speak to the BBC.

"We don't have any information. For now, it has been scheduled for 1400. Let's hope it'll be ready for 1400. Please watch the departure boards," was the matter-of-fact answer.

Then at about 1330 there was yet another announcement: "the flight for Murmansk has been delayed until 1500".

So it went on, hour after hour, with people unable to leave their seats and each time getting false hopes about finally being able to get on a plane.

But some did get lucky.

Just as Sergei was trying to get a bit more comfortable and dozing off, an excited voice announced: "Passengers who have been trying to get to Perm for the last four days since 26 December, so on 26, 27, 28 and 29 December, please get ready for boarding!"

At first, Sergei looked stunned, then he smiled.

"Happy New Year!" he cried, hurrying towards the gate, oblivious to the fatigue caused by three sleepless nights.

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