Video: Britain faces a month of weather chaos as snow wrecks travel plan
THE UK is facing a month of snow, ice and freezing temperatures after the first Big Freeze of the winter led to cancelled flights at Heathrow and treacherous conditions on the roads.
Forecasters have warned the biting temperatures, snow showers and overnight frosts could last until the end of February as the country returned to work amid expected school closures.
Parts of the UK woke up to lying snow of up to five inches (14cm) this morning while the coldest temperature of -8.6C (16.5F) was recorded overnight in North Yorkshire.
Heathrow Airport faced questions last night as to why half of all flights were cancelled hours after it stopped snowing.
The airport authorities incurred the wrath of passengers after 600 flights were grounded at Heathrow despite just three inches of snowfall, disrupting the plans of as many as 18,000 travellers.
This morning, the airport was operating its normal flight schedule but warned of a backlog of cancellations.
The Met Office in the UK said the rest of the week would be cold for most parts of the country.
"Most of England and Wales will be staying relatively settled but cold. The biggest risk is hard overnight frost and freezing fog," said Steven Keates, Met Office forecaster.
"It looks as if this cold snap will last two or three weeks and this weather system looks as though it will erode from the west in the second half of February."
The disruption was in stark contrast to airports across Europe where, despite record low temperatures, flights took off as normal.
In Germany, no airport had to shut even though Munich saw temperatures plunge to -27C. In Stockholm only six of 350 flights were cancelled. Copenhagen had four inches of snow but no disruption.
In contrast, by Saturday afternoon BAA had already cancelled a third of flights nine hours before any snow had fallen in a pre-emptive plan to avoid the chaos of previous winters.
Yet even as the snow began to melt from 6am on Sunday and passengers reported clear runways, more than half of flights remained grounded.
It comes less than 14 months after the airport was crippled for five days because there were not enough snow clearance vehicles to keep runways open.
Despite an inquiry and promises by BAA that it had increased its snowplough fleet by 68 to 185 at a cost of £32.4 million, the airport was only able to handle just one in two flights.
“It’s ubelievable. The runways seemed clear and they have cancelled the flights,” said Philippa Britton, of Kendal, Cumbria.
Those flying in from Moscow voiced their disbelief that they were stranded, despite flying out from Russia in -20C snow storms. Miriam Walters, 62, a teacher, said: “The runways at Moscow were covered with snow and still we managed to leave.”
Although the bad weather caught airport operators unaware in 2010, The Met Office had predicted the weekend snowfall days in advance.
Gatwick, Stansted and London Luton had no disruption as did Manchester, Prestwick and Edinburgh. The number of planes stuck on the tarmac at Heathrow meant incoming flights were forced to divert elsewhere.
Hundreds of passengers were last night stranded in Ireland as six flights were sent to Shannon Airport. British Airways was badly affected, with two thirds of its flights between 9.15am and 2.15pm cancelled.
Stranded passengers said the airport refused to put them up in hotels, forcing them to sleep on yoga mats in terminals.
Elin Mabbutt, a mother of three from Aberystwyth, was due to fly to Mumbai on Saturday but her flight was cancelled. “It is frustrating especially as there is no sign of snow on the ground,” said Mrs Mabbutt, 33.
Lengthy delays meant many crew had exceeded their working hours and could not fly.