Christmas misery as heavy fog brings chaos to airports

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The Independent Online

The Christmas plans of hundreds of thousands of people are in jeopardy because of the severe fog which has grounded flights from British airports.

British Airways has cancelled 180 flights out of Heathrow today, including all domestic services. Many European flights will also be affected as only 220 of its usual 400 flights will take off. Passengers travelling long-haul were also warned to expect severe delays. The airline, the worst affected by the weather, is urging customers booked on domestic flights not to travel to the airport today, as Heathrow will only be able to handle 50 per cent of its usual traffic.

Yesterday, Heathrow was in chaos as more than 200 BA flights were cancelled. All flights that departed from Heathrow suffered severe delays, as the spacing between planes in the air was increased from three to six miles.

The airline bmi, formerly British Midland Airways, and the European carriers Lufthansa and Alitalia, also cancelled flights, while BA cancelled 18 short-haul flights out of Gatwick yesterday and warned of continuing delays during today.

The Met Office said the fog is set to continue until the weekend. More than two million people are planning to travel abroad from UK airports over the Christmas period.

Patrick Spink, a spokesman for BA, said that cancellations on this scale from fog were "rare", and last occurred "several years ago". He said: "The last fog cancellation was back in November, but not on this scale.''

BA said it was expecting "a really tough 48 hours". The airline said: "This situation is beyond British Airways' control and is affecting all airlines operating at London Heathrow ... The fog is likely to remain over south-east England for the next 48 hours. BA flights to and from Gatwick are likely to be impacted. We plan to operate our long-haul schedule as normal, albeit with some lengthy delays."

It is the latest crisis beyond British Airway's control to hit the airline, less than a month after three planes were grounded after low-level radioactive contamination was found by scientists involved in the murder investigation into the poisoning of the former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko.

In August, BA suffered 1,280 flight cancellations as a result of hand luggage restrictions imposed in the wake of anti-terror raids and arrests in Walthamstow and High Wycombe, costing the company an estimated £40m. Ongoing security restrictions led to two-hour delays at check-in at Heathrow's Terminal 4 earlier this week, with queues snaking outside into temporary marquees.

Elsewhere, several flights in and out of Liverpool John Lennon Airport were cancelled, and Cardiff International diverted some flights to Bristol.

Some 160 passengers on an Irish Ferries boat sailing to Pembroke in west Wales were delayed for ten hours overnight after the fog caused the closure of the port. The boat finally docked at 11.30am yesterday. And motorists should also expect delays due to reduced visibility - despite the suspension of all major roadworks from Friday until 2 January - as more than 18 million vehicles are expected to be on the road over Christmas.

'This was to be a special trip, I feel let down by BA'

Ewa Nalbantoglu, carer, 30

Ms Nalbantoglu, from Wood Green in north London, was due to travel to Wloclawek in Poland for Christmas for the first time since she came to London six years ago. It would have been the first time her husband, a policeman, and her one-year-old son Alex, would have spent Christmas with her family.

Yesterday, Mrs Nalbantoglu's 1.30pm flight to Warsaw was cancelled. After waiting at Heathrow for two hours, she was told by BA that she would not be able to fly until 26 December, despite Polish airlines continuing their flights.

"I am totally devastated," she said. "It is not like this was a sudden whim. We booked these flights in July because I wanted to show my family a Polish Christmas, which is so special."

She said she felt "utterly let down" by BA, adding: "We spent a day at the airport - where no one would tell us what was happening at first - and then had to go back to Wood Green."