Anger mounts in Istanbul, Athens over blizzard chaos

January 25, 2022

Istanbul officials ordered all private vehicles off the slushy streets and Athenians abandoned their cars in drifting snow

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Commuters wait for tramway in Karakoy district of Istanbul on January 25, 2022 after a snowstorm. Istanbul is experiencing heavy snowfalls, with roads blocked, flights and intercity transportation canceled and thousands of vehicles stranded on majors roads. — AFP

ISTANBUL: Stranded passengers chanted protests at Europe's busiest airport in Istanbul on Tuesday and soldiers dug out snowed-in drivers in Athens as a rare blizzard stirred up anger and chaos across swathes of the eastern Mediterranean.

Istanbul officials ordered all private vehicles off the slushy streets and Athenians abandoned their cars in drifting snow as basic services such as food delivery in both cities ground to a halt.

The problems were compounded in Athens and across some of Greece's scenic islands by power cuts in the unusual winter freeze.

"Athens is not used to this amount of snow," 50-year-old Neo Psychiko remarked as revellers took selfies around the white-dusted hills of the Parthenon temple.

Yet much of the international attention focused on the fate of Istanbul's main airport — a gleaming glass-and-steel structure that offers connecting flights spanning much of the world.

A blizzard on Monday closed Istanbul Airport for the first time since it took over from the old Ataturk Airport as the new hub for Turkish Airlines in 2019.

The first flight since Monday afternoon landed from the Venezuelan capital Caracas after one of the runways was cleared to accept a few flights.

But the other two runways remained snowed under and just a handful of the hundreds of delayed flights were scheduled to take off or land on Tuesday.

'We need a hotel'

Istanbul Airport serviced more than 37 million passengers last year despite disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

It first grabbed the title of Europe's busiest airport in 2020 — just a year after it opened — thanks to Turkey's decision to allow travellers to freely enter the country in a bid to boost tourism revenues.

Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport came in second last year by accepting nearly 31 million passengers.

Traditional capitals of European travel before the pandemic — including London and Paris — have seen their passenger numbers implode as global carriers rearrange their flight patterns to fit the new realities.

Yet President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's critics 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 winter.

Istanbul's second airport on its Asian side near the Sea of Marmara stayed open throughout the storm.

Numerous passengers stuck aboard stranded flights took to Twitter to air their grievances with the airport's customer service and lack of updates.

"Not even a bottle of water offered. Zero concern for women with children," user Chris Wiggett wrote in a typical tweet.

Images tweeted from inside the packed airport on Tuesday showed a frustrated crowd chanting "we need a hotel".


The Istanbul mayor's office said some parts of the city of 16 million people had recorded 85 centimetres (2.8 feet) of snow.

The Istanbul governor's office closed the region's universities until Monday and announced a temporary suspension of non-emergency traffic into the city from its Asian and European sides.

The situation appeared just as chaotic in Greece.

Officials reported a "superhuman" effort had managed to clear the number of vehicles stranded along the main highway encircling Athens from 1,200 to 500 by Tuesday evening.

The Greek government declared Tuesday and Wednesday as public holidays in a bid to limit the number of daily commuters and help ongoing efforts to clear the streets.

But the unscheduled days off did little to lift Greeks' spirits in the middle of the winter freeze.

"I have had no electricity since Monday evening," pensioner Dionyssis Kiourkakis told AFP. "This is shameful. If I were younger, I would leave Greece."

The Athens public prosecutor's office opened an investigation as officials traded blame over who was responsible for the circular highway's disruptive closure.

Greek civil protection minister Christos Stylianides issued a formal apology while assigning responsibility on the private motorway management company Attiki Odos.

The management company also said it was sorry but blamed the problems on "vehicle breakdowns and lack of experience of motorists".

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