Heathrow, the world's busiest international airport, was the scene of chaos and frustration as travellers were forced to wait in heated tents outside three of its four terminals and raffles were held for the right to board some flights.
The British Airports Authority (BAA), Heathrow airport's operator, warned that it expects further cancellations there today as the blanket of fog refused to lift.
Hundreds of travellers, many of them foreign passengers in transit who had not been able to get hotel rooms, were forced to spend the night at Heathrow. British Airways said it handed out 5,000 blankets.
Weather forecasters last night offered little hope of respite from the freezing fog. The Met Office said conditions bringing a high risk of fog would persist over England and Wales up to Christmas Day and beyond, which would mean that the next 48 hours are likely to be even worse for passengers. Today is expected to be the peak of the Christmas period, with 194,000 travellers passing through the airport 30,000 more than a normal day.
The managing director of BAA Heathrow, Mark Bullock, admitted that if the fog did not lift, a proportion of the passengers would not get a flight before Christmas.
Those hoping to board one overbooked transatlantic flight yesterday were offered the chance to take part in a raffle for remaining seats. While some passengers adopted an air of philosophical resignation at the weather, others accused BAA of failing to be prepared for another bout of chaos, following delays caused by new security checks in the summer.
Stephen Moc, who had arrived at Terminal 2 on Wednesday from Hong Kong en route to Oslo with his wife and two young sons, said: "Of course the weather conditions can be bad but this is one of the biggest airports in the world and they should be aware and take the necessary arrangements. We are taking a gamble and queuing up when we could abandon hope and spend Christmas in London."
Knut Sommersfelt, a 24-year-old Norwegian student heading for Christmas in Trinidad via a connecting flight due to leave the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, last night, said: "I'll probably end up spending Christmas Day in Caracas airport. What do I think of that? It sucks."
John Spellar, a former Labour minister, said: "This puts at risk Britain's tourist industry and London's position as a world centre for air travel. People are not going to wear this disruption again."
Meanwhile, on the roads, motorway congestion was worst on the M4 and M25 as well as the M1 near Nottingham and the M6 near Birmingham. A spokesman for the road information company Trafficmaster said: "This is the first full day of the school holidays and ... this has led to jams all over the place."Reuse content