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Simon Calder: British Airways 'plane on fire' over Heathrow causes travel chaos on one of the busiest weekends of the year

More than a dozen flights were diverted – many of them to Gatwick, Luton and Stansted, but some to more distant airports

Tens of thousands of passengers hoping to fly out of Heathrow today have seen their travel plans wrecked as a result of this morning’s emergency at Europe’s busiest airport.

Initially both runways were closed at Heathrow, at one of the peak times for arrivals and departures. The southern runway re-opened 20 minutes after the stricken Airbus A319 landed on the northern runway.

More than a dozen flights were diverted – many of them to Gatwick, Luton and Stansted, but some to more distant airports. British Airways passengers who had been heading for Heathrow found themselves in Cardiff, Bournemouth and Manston in Kent. Returning the aircraft to Heathrow will prove a headache, because with just one runway operating the airport for a many hours today, the airport already has great pressure on capacity. All short-haul flights have been cancelled until 4pm.

An airport spokesman said in a statement: “The temporary closure is likely to result in a number of cancelled flights throughout the day”.

By 11am, two hours after the incident, BA had cancelled 77 outbound flights – and the corresponding inbound services due later today. All the initial cancellations were of domestic and European flights, but with crews and aircraft out of position it is possible that long-haul flights may be affected.

BA said: “There will be significant disruption to flights into and out of Heathrow and we recommend you check the status of your flight before leaving for the airport”.

Virgin Atlantic cancelled its flights from Heathrow to Manchester and back, and warned that transatlantic services would be delayed.

Passengers whose flights are cancelled will be re-booked on the next available flight – but that could be some time away. Bookings for this weekend, when half-term begins for many families, are extremely heavy.

The incident happened at the start of one of the busiest weekends of the year. British Airways was expecting to carry 128,000 passengers today, most of them to or from Heathrow, and close to half a million between now and Bank Holiday Monday.

The emergency will add extra impetus to the debate over airport capacity in south-east England – partly from residents who live beneath the flight paths concerned about their safety when a stricken aircraft needs to land, and partly from those who will say the massive disruption at Heathrow after the incident shows how urgently extra capacity is needed.

Comment: Nowhere else but London would a temporary runway closure lead to 200 flights being cancelled