-200 flights will not take off today to 'minimise disruption to passengers'
-18,000 travellers could be affected by possible freezing fog at the airport
-Britain on amber alert - the Met Office's second highest severe weather warning
By CHRISTOPHER LEAKE and RUSSELL MYERS
Snowy rural Britain: Heavy snowfall brings Ashbourne in Derbyshire to a standstill but at least one resident remembered to take his Landrover to the pub
Airport bosses came under fire last night after cancelling a third of today’s flights at Heathrow because of severe weather – nine hours before a flake of snow had even fallen.
Amid forecasts of six inches of snow and possible freezing fog, Spanish-owned operator BAA announced yesterday morning that 30 per cent of today’s flights from the world’s busiest airport – about 200 – would not take off to ‘minimise disruption to passengers’.
A plane waits at Heathrow yesterday. Airport bosses have cancelled a third of today's flights at Heathrow because of severe weather - nine hours before a flake of snow had even fallen
It means that the flights of up to 18,000 travellers could be cancelled or rescheduled as airlines scramble to adjust their flight plans. The decision was in stark contrast to airports across most of Europe where, despite arctic conditions, flights were due to take off as normal. Munich saw temperatures plunge to minus 27C on Friday night but the airport expected no disruptions today.
White city: People battle a snow covered Westminster Bridge in London, left, while flakes fall in front of Big Ben in Parliament Square at 7.20pm last night
The BAA move evoked memories of Christmas 2010, when Heathrow shut for five days, ruining the holidays of tens of thousands of people because there were insufficient snow clearance vehicles to keep runways open.
Gridlock: Traffic comes to a standstill on the A50 trunk road through Stoke-On-Trent as vehicles struggle in heavy snow and people abandon their cars
Snow-go: This policeman is going no where in in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, left, after snow covers his squad car and right, the empty M6 motorway near Stoke-On-Trent
The decision was met with derision by passengers at the airport, where by 7pm yesterday a light covering of snow was on the ground although runways remained clear.
Retired teacher Miriam Walters, 62, and husband Derek, 58, flew in on the 4.10pm flight from Moscow after visiting their daughter Penny.
Mrs Walters said: ‘The runways at Moscow were covered with snow and still we managed to leave and arrive at our destination with no bother at all. It’s only when you go to other countries that you realise how pathetic we are at coping with a little bit of extreme weather.’
Aimie Greggs, 29, a sales rep from Enfield, London, arrived from Hamburg on the 5.20pm flight. She said: ‘The UK seems useless at dealing with all sorts of weather, whether it’s too cold or too hot.’
BAA yesterday contacted London Mayor Boris Johnson’s chief of staff Edward Lister to explain why it had ordered the flight reductions, citing the threat of freezing fog as the main reason.
But in its official announcement, BAA said it expected reduced visibility during today and ‘possible freezing fog from 1800 (6pm)’.
Tigers play in heavy snowfall at their enclosure in Budapest Zoo in Hungary. A spell of freezing weather in Europe has caused more than 220 deaths, mostly in the east
If fog did hang over Heathrow later today, it could lead to more flights being grounded and force air traffic controllers to increase the time between each take-off and landing slot for safety reasons.
Heathrow’s chief operating officer, Normand Boivin, said: ‘This decision ensures the greatest number of passengers can fly with the minimum of disruption. It also means those passengers whose flights are cancelled will know in advance, and can make alternative arrangements or rebook in relative comfort.’
Because passenger volumes are below average in early February, airlines were confident that in many cases they would be able to offer alternative seats to passengers. This will enable airlines to fill empty seats on flights leaving at different times of the day.
Flashback: A snowplough clears the taxi ways at Heathrow Airport in December 2010 following the heavy snowfall. The airport was shut for five days due to the bad weather
Heathrow passengers waiting outside Terminal 3 after the disruption caused by the snow in 2010 when the airport was closed for five days
Last night, Gatwick had still to decide on any flight cancellations. Stansted and London Luton had no cancellations planned for today. Neither did Southampton.
At Manchester, officials said although there had been snow flurries, the comparatively milder weather there meant it was confident flights would not be disrupted.
In Scotland, Prestwick and Edinburgh expected to run a normal service today despite predictions of freezing temperatures overnight.
Solid ice: The summer resort of Sandbanks turned into Siberia today as Poole harbour froze over and boats became trapped in ice