Istanbul airport shuts as snow blankets southeast Europe


Published: 2022-01-24 21:07

Last Updated: 2022-12-06 15:43

Credit: AFP
Credit: AFP

Europe's busiest airport shut down in Istanbul while schools and vaccination centers closed in Athens as a rare snowstorm blanketed swathes of the eastern Mediterranean region, causing blackouts and traffic havoc.

The closure of Istanbul Airport -- where the roof of one of the cargo terminals collapsed under the heavy snow, causing no injuries -- grounded flights stretching from the Middle East and Africa to Europe and Asia.

Travel officials told AFP it marked the gleaming glass-and-steel structure's first shutdown since it replaced Istanbul's old Ataturk Airport as the new hub for Turkish Airlines in 2019.

The winter's first snow created a jovial atmosphere across the squares of Istanbul's ancient mosques, where children built snowmen and tourists posed for selfies.

But it dealt a major headache for the 16 million residents of Turkey's largest city, where cars ploughed into each other skidding down steep, sleet-covered streets and highways turned into parking lots.

The Istanbul governor's office warned drivers they would not be able to enter the city from Thrace -- a region stretching across the European part of Turkey to its western border with Bulgaria and Greece.

Shopping malls closed early, food delivery services shut down and the city's iconic "simit" bagel stalls stood empty because suppliers could not make their way through the snow.

Traffic officials also closed major roads across large parts of central and southeastern Turkey, a mountainous region first hit by a snowstorm last week.

Istanbul Airport serviced more than 37 million passengers last year, becoming one of the world's most important air hubs.

But critics of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had long questioned his decision to place the airport on a remote patch along the Black Sea coast that is often covered with fog in the winter.

"Due to adverse conditions, all flights have been temporarily stopped for air safety," the airport said in a statement, posting pictures on Twitter of yellow snowplows circling stranded airplanes.

Turkish Airlines said it was suspending all Istanbul Airport flights until at least 4:00 am (0100 GMT) Tuesday.

The airport itself said it did expect service to resume before midnight.

- 'Everything is frozen' -

Most of Turkey's main institutions stayed open on Monday.

But in Turkey's Aegean Sea neighbour Greece, where overnight temperatures plummeted to -14 degrees Celsius (6.8 degrees Fahrenheit), the storm suspended a session of parliament and forced schools and vaccination centres to close in Athens.

Thousands of motorists were trapped in their cars around Athens -- many of them venting their anger on TV stations -- despite attempts by police to seal off motorway entry points in the northern part of the capital.

"My wife has had nothing to eat since morning. We had a small bottle of water between us," one driver who identified himself only as Christos told private Star TV.

"Everything is frozen stiff."

A cold snap with sub-zero temperatures and gale-force winds last hit Athens in February 2021, killing four people on the islands of Evia and Crete and leaving tens of thousands of households without electricity for days.

Costas Lagouvardos, research director at the National Observatory of Athens, told ANT1 TV that the capital had not seen back-to-back winters like this since 1968.

"It is an extreme condition for our country," Christos Zerefos, a Greek atmospheric physics professor, told state TV ERT.

The snow uncharacteristically fell on several Aegean Sea islands, shutting off some mountain villages on Andros, Naxos and Tinos, and covering beaches in Mykonos, in summer a tourist party island.