A third consecutive day of misery at a fog-bound Heathrow airport ended in optimism yesterday as British Airways predicted that most domestic and short-haul flights would resume today.
BA set its sights on running up to 95 per cent of its Heathrow services and hoped that the timetable of flights would operate as usual on Christmas Eve. The airline's upbeat assessment came as forecasters predicted that weekend fog would be much lighter and quicker to lift.
But the announcement came as little comfort to many thousands of travellers as hundreds of flights were cancelled again yesterday, on what is traditionally one of the busiest travel days of the year.
About 350 flights were cancelled at Heathrow to bring the total of flights grounded by the fog to 1,000. At Heathrow an estimated 40,000 passengers were stranded, some being forced to wait in the freezing cold as stewards struggled to cope with the backlog from three days' chaos.
British Airways cancelled 170 of its 550 daily flights, including all domestic flights and many short-haul flights to Europe. Poor visibility also forced the cancellation of a small number of flights from Gatwick, London City, Coventry, Norwich, Bristol and Cardiff.
Faced with mounting anger from passengers, BA announced that it would give full refunds to customers booked on this week's 600 cancelled flights. The airline, which will lose millions as a result of the fog, stressed that it was under no obligation to give compensation. "In the circumstances we felt it was the right thing to do" said a BA spokesman.
The airline admitted that up to 70,000 travellers out of the 400,000 due to fly out of Heathrow over the past three days had been "directly affected" by the fog, meaning that they have chosen not to travel or have used road or rail.
Poor visibility coupled with the cancellation of domestic flights made for difficult conditions on the roads. Traffic on the M20 through Kent to the ferry ports and the Channel Tunnel was slow-moving due to an accident. BA managed to get about 3,000 passengers to UK destinations by coach. The airline laid on coach services again from Heathrow to Newcastle, Manchester, Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh.
The effects of the airport chaos were also being felt by train operators. Virgin laid on extra trains, although there was standing room only on the main routes out of London. Eurostar is fully booked today.
Meanwhile, tempers were fraying at Heathrow where airport staff resorted to handing out woollen hats and gloves to delayed passengers who could not gain access to the packed overflow marquees. A Father Christmas was brought in to entertain children in the terminals.
Geoff Want, BA's director of ground operations, said many passengers would reach their destination by Christmas after all. He said: "At this stage we are hopeful that the weather will improve slightly over the weekend and therefore we can get back to operating a full-planned Christmas Eve schedule."
Heathrow airport's managing director, Mark Bullock, said: "We deeply regret that passengers are suffering cancellations and delays. In severe weather like this they have to considerably reduce the capacity of our busy runways. This means airlines have no choice but to cancel flights."
'It's a bit like the breadlines of the Soviet Union'
David Ranan, 60, a London-based doctor of political science, discovered on arrival at Heathrow yesterday that his flight to Munich was cancelled. "It's a bit like the breadlines of the former Soviet Union. I'm now standing in my third line and I've got a few more to go.
"The fog is not in the sky so much as in the minds of the BA directors. There are signs up saying abuse to BA staff will not be tolerated. But in my view BA is abusing its customers."
Dave Sidgwick, 34, of Kennington, south London, was hoping to fly to Cyprus for Christmas:
"It is just a bit chaotic. A large notice board might help rather than customers having to approach staff."
Maria Negrea, 28, and her family arrived from Dublin on Tuesday night heading to Bucharest:
"My children are just eight, six and four. They are tired, hungry and have not had a wash for 72 hours. There is no information about when we will get to Bucharest."