Tens of thousands of airline passengers found their flights cancelled yesterday in a replay of last winter's disruption as Heathrow Airport's "snow plan" failed to survive first contact with inclement weather.
By lunchtime, the airport's promise that 70 per cent of flights would operate was downgraded to half would operate. Passengers booked with BA, the airport's biggest customer, were hardest hit. Many were stranded at the wrong end of their planned routes, while several thousand found themselves in the wrong country.
At least a dozen wide-bodied BA jets flying to Britain's busiest airport yesterday morning were told they could not land. Airports in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Holland and Germany were used instead. Some transatlantic flights were able to complete their journeys after a couple of hours on the ground, but many passengers faced overnight stays before they could reach their final destination.
Flight BA12 from Singapore was one of the worst affected. The Boeing 747, with over 300 passengers, was held at Singapore for 70 minutes after Heathrow warned the airport would not open until 6am. Just before it arrived, the captain told passengers it would instead be landing at Prestwick in south-west Scotland.
Paul Charles, chief executive of Perowne Charles Communications, was on board. He said: "The captain told us Heathrow seemed to be in chaos." BAA blamed the diversions on aircraft blocking parking stands. After the December 2010 debacle, which cost airlines more than £50m and wrecked the travel plans of around one million people, the airport has invested heavily in new equipment. BAA has worked with airlines and air-traffic control authorities to formulate a new snow plan. In a statement yesterday, the airport said: "Our snow plan has worked far better than in previous years."
Heathrow's normal schedule leaves no slack in the system to recover from problems. So ahead of the forecast snowfall on Saturday, the airport's owner, BAA, asked airlines to cut their Sunday flying schedules by 30 per cent.
BA planned to cancel 90 outbound flights, almost all of them domestic and European. But by mid-morning many departures were several hours late, and dozens of transatlantic flights were cancelled. Inbound aircraft faced congestion as aircraft were still on stands.
The problems began on Saturday night. The snowfall delayed the departure of nine long-haul flights to the Middle East, Asia, Australia and South America. Even though Heathrow was given permission for flights to depart after the normal night-time curfew, the crews would not have been able to complete the flights within permitted hours.
BAA said yesterday: "We expect to return to a full flight schedule on Monday," but British Airways has cancelled dozens of departures today, including outbound flights to Paris, Edinburgh and New York, and inbound services from Hong Kong, Johannesburg and Singapore. Virgin Atlantic cancelled four transatlantic flights and its Tokyo flight. Airlines now face the problem of getting planes, pilots and passengers to where they are meant to be. A BA spokeswoman said they will contact customers affected by cancellations, adding: "We're extremely sorry for the inconvenience."
WINTER STORMS IN NUMBERS
2,000: tonnes of grit were put down in London overnight on Saturday
70% more breakdowns attended by the RAC than usual on Saturday
1,500: The number of call-outs the AA were dealing with an hour on Saturday
100: cars were left stranded on the M40 on Saturday
50% of flights from Heathrow Airport were cancelled yesterday, out of a total of 1,300
2,500 call outs were received by the London Ambulance Service between midnight and noon on Sunday, an increase of 26 per cent compared to the previous week