Tens of thousands of travellers will wake up on Thursday morning out of position after hundreds of flights were cancelled because of severe winter weather.
Another 30,000 booked to travel to or from Heathrow airport have been told their flights are cancelled, with airlines proactively cancelling around 200 departures.
For the first time since the Siberian snap began, large numbers of long-haul flights have been grounded. British Airways, the worst affected airline, has cancelled transatlantic services to Boston, New York, Philadelphia, San Jose and Washington DC.
BA has also grounded 140 domestic and European flights to and from Heathrow, including eight round trips to Dublin and seven to Edinburgh. In a statement, the airline said: “Due to the severe weather conditions and restrictions and potential closures at some airports we fly to and from, we have been forced to cancel and merge some of our flights on Thursday and Friday to ensure that we protect the rest of our schedule.
“We are keeping customers informed and offering those due to travel up to and including Sunday a range of flexible rebooking options, even if their flight is still due to fly as planned.
“We are sorry that the weather this week is leading to some delays and disruption to our schedules. We continue to do all we can minimise the effect the poor weather may have on our flights.”
Virgin Atlantic has axed Thursday’s services from Heathrow to Boston, Miami, Seattle and Washington DC. American Airlines cancelled a round trip from Chicago to Heathrow, while United grounded a New York-Heathrow-New York rotation.
Many European airlines cancelled Heathrow services on Friday. Lufthansa and its subsidiary, Eurowings, was worst hit, with 16 cancellations. KLM grounded six flights to and from Amsterdam, while Swiss cancelled four to each of Geneva and Zurich.
Air France, TAP Portugal, LOT of Poland and Turkish Airlines cancelled round trips from their respective hubs to Heathrow.
Passengers were told during Wednesday afternoon and evening, and invited to rebook or apply for a refund.
The proactive cancellations were mandated by Heathrow after consultation with the air-traffic provider, NATS, and the Met Office. The idea is to minimise the risk of on-the-day cancellations, which are much more difficult to manage. Hundreds of flights have been cancelled over the past three days.
Because the root of the problem is adverse weather, passengers whose flights are cancelled or heavily delayed by bad weather are not entitled to cash compensation. But the cancelling airline has a duty of care to provide meals and, if necessary, overnight accommodation to stranded travellers.
An estimated 20,000 passengers due to fly in or out of Scotland on Wednesday found their flights cancelled, when Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen airports were closed.
Glasgow was worst hit, with very few flights operating. One of the few to land was Emirates from Dubai. The Boeing 777 flew a holding pattern over the Borders for over an hour before touching down just before 1pm. But the outbound service, along with dozens of other flights, was cancelled.
Flybe has cancelled all its flights to and from Edinburgh and Glasgow up to noon on Thursday, and to Aberdeen until 10am. The airline said: “Customers should not travel to the airport.”
One Scotland-bound passenger arrived from the US at Heathrow to be told to share a taxi north or book into a hotel for two days, at his own expense, and reclaim the costs later.
London City and Leeds Bradford were also badly affected by the weather, with most of their arrivals and departures on Wednesday cancelled.
Because so many aircraft and crew are out of position, disruption is likely to continue even when the weather clears. The cost to airlines is running into many millions of pounds.
Rail travel closed down across Scotland and parts of England as a result of heavy snowfalls. After the Met Office issued a red warning for the central belt of Scotland, ScotRail tweeted: “In areas where the RED weather warning applies, customers should head for home NOW. There will be NO train services in the RED weather warning area tonight, or first thing tomorrow morning.”
Caledonian Sleeper, which runs overnight trains from Fort William, Inverness, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow to London, cancelled all its Anglo-Scottish services.
Virgin Trains East Coast urged passengers not to try to travel between Scotland and England on Thursday. The Met Office warning runs until 10am on Thursday morning.