BRUSSELS/PARIS/FRANKFURT (Reuters) - An overnight snowstorm in northwestern Europe forced the closure of Frankfurt Airport, caused record traffic jams in Belgium, and left British and French drivers sleeping in their cars.
Take-offs and landings at Europe's third-busiest airport were halted on Tuesday noon for two hours to clear snow from the runways. Airlines, including Deutsche Lufthansa, cancelled about 700 flights of a daily total of 1,200 as the airport was only partially reopened in the afternoon.
Snow and ice contributed to several accidents about 50 km (30 miles) from Frankfurt on the A 45 motorway, including a massive pile-up involving as many as 100 cars and trucks.
In France, a Tunisair plane slid off the runway on landing at Orly airport, forcing the closure of a runway at Paris's second hub while 140 passengers were evacuated.
In Belgium, the breakdown assistance association Touring said the total length of tailbacks on highways and major roads at their rush-hour peak hit 1,670 km (1,038 miles), beating by far the previous record of 1,285 km set on February 3 last year.
"There was too much snow at the wrong moment. If it snows a lot at night, the salt doesn't work as there aren't enough cars to spread it around," Touring spokesman Danny Smagghe said.
On a normal Tuesday, total morning rush-hour traffic jams average 250-270 km.
The high-speed Eurostar train service connecting London with the French and Belgian capitals and the Thalys line linking Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam in the Netherlands and Cologne in Germany were both suspended.
Brussels's two main railway stations were closed.
France's civil aviation authority cancelled a quarter of flights at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, the second-largest in Europe after London's Heathrow, and a fifth at Orly. Brussels airport reported extensive delays and some diversions of planes to Ostend or Amsterdam.
Around 80,000 homes in northeastern France were without electricity, according to the power network operator ERDF. French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said French soldiers had been mobilised to help electricity grid workers restore power.
Social media were full of messages about the unusual mid-March snowfall of up to 20 cm (8 inches) and the cold. It was set to be the first mid-March day since 1925 that the daytime temperature in Belgium had not risen above freezing.
Foreign Minister Didier Reynders tweeted that budget talks would be delayed due to the weather.
Pensions Minister Alexander De Croo added: "The budget won't be simple, but just getting into Brussels to get started is a task of a different order altogether."
In southeastern England and northern France, hundreds of drivers spent the night in their cars. Another 600 people spent the night in public buildings opened up for them by authorities in the French coastal region of Normandy.
Two people were reported to have died in France, one a homeless man, another an elderly person trying to get home.
High winds and snowdrifts also caused traffic chaos in southern parts of the Netherlands.
(Reporting By Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels, Pierre Savary in Lille, France, Marc Parrad in Rouen, Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam; Michael Holden in London, Peter Dinkloh in Frankfurt; Writing by Philip Blenkinsop and Peter Dinkloh; Editing by Michael Roddy)