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South's first snowfall brings transport to a standstill

Passenger fury as just two centimetres cancels flights at Stansted and Luton

Stranded passengers reacted with anger as Stansted airport closed its runway after just a couple of centimetres of snow caused transport nightmares across the country today.

While road and rail travellers in many parts of the Midlands and southern England suffered from closures and cancellations, travel frustration was at its highest inside the terminal buildings of the Essex airport, where operations were called off at 6.20am just as planes were about to begin taking off.

Despite 23 outgoing and 20 incoming flights being cancelled – with Ryanair, which runs most routes at Stansted, the worst affected airline – the airport said it was “satisfied” with its performance given the conditions it had to cope with, re-opening its runway after two hours. Luton and Aberdeen airports were also affected.

The poor weather also led to a 10-vehicle pile-up on the London-bound section of the A299 at Whitstable in Kent. Trains were cancelled or running with severe delays in Hertfordshire, Surrey and Kent, as sleet, ice and continued flooding made for perilous driving conditions in and around the Home Counties, causing dozens of crashes. About 50 schools were closed.

But Michael Dukes, director of forecasting at MeteoGroup, said the snow amounted to “only one or two centimetres in places, it is not very much”.

One passenger at Stansted, Eija Martin from Finland, said it was difficult to understand from a Scandinavian perspective how the UK was unable to keep its airports operating. “For us, this is crazy,” she said. “A couple of inches of snow, which we would think nothing of in Finland, has caused so much chaos. They really should be better prepared.”

Patrycja Kubiak, a 20-year-old music student from Poznan in Poland, added: “I’m just surprised that such a small amount of snow can cause these problems. It only snowed for half an hour.”

There were also complaints that they had been told conflicting, or wrong, information. Stephen Allen, 49, who was attempting to get to Spain to watch a Barcelona football match, said: “The most frustrating thing is nobody is telling us what’s going on.”

Mark Davison, head of communications for Stansted, said he had “sympathy” for those affected but defended its efforts. “We had early snow, followed by falling temperatures and then more snow, which settled on ice, compounding the problem. It was certainly worse than had been forecast,” he said.

“We had the runway open again within two hours which, under the circumstances, we are satisfied with. A total area of 500,000 square metres needed to be cleared.”

In a statement Ryanair said “we sincerely apologise for any inconvenience”.

Forecast: The next three days

Thursday: Rain and snow in north-west Scotland will reach northern England and Wales in the afternoon. Some early sunny spells across the rest of England leading to rain by evening.

Friday: Cloudy across eastern areas of England with outbreaks of rain, sleet and hill snow. Brighter elsewhere with sunny spells, but there will be a scattering of showers in western areas, heavy in Wales and south-west England.

Saturday: Early mist and fog patches will slowly lift to leave a cold but bright day with plenty of sunshine. However, turning cloudier in northern Scotland with rain here later.