Portugal Colonial - Istanbul permits first flights after snow pummels Mediterranean

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Istanbul permits first flights after snow pummels Mediterranean
Istanbul permits first flights after snow pummels Mediterranean

Istanbul permits first flights after snow pummels Mediterranean

Europe's busiest airport in Istanbul welcomed its first flight in 24 hours on Tuesday and Greece declared a public holiday as the eastern Mediterranean neighbours began digging out of a rare snowstorm that ground their capitals to a halt.

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Turkish officials ordered all private vehicles off the snow-clogged streets of Istanbul while the Greek military joined rescuers in trying to evacuate hundreds of stranded drivers in Athens.

Major highways were closed across both countries and basic services such as food delivery shut down.

But 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.

It tweeted an image on Tuesday of the first flight since Monday afternoon landing from the Venezuelan capital Caracas after one of the runways was cleared to accept a few flights.

But only one of the three runways remained opened 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".

- 'Shameful' -

A burst of sunshine over the city of 16 million people on Tuesday raised hopes that the storm had finally passed and normal life could slowly resume.

But forecasts warned of more possible snow on Tuesday evening and officials ordered all cars off the streets.

The mayor's office said some parts of Istanbul 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 city from its Asian and European sides.

The situation appeared just as chaotic in Greece.

Officials said 3,500 trapped motorists had to be rescued from their vehicles on the main highway encircling Athens.

Power cuts in and around Athens fed the public's discontent.

"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 closure of the city's main road leading to the Greek capital's international airport.

Greek civil protection minister Christos Stylianides issued a formal apology while also casting most of the blame on the private motorway management company Attiki Odos.