Thousands of expatriates hoping to fly home for the Christmas holiday had their travel plans thrown into chaos yesterday by an Arctic freeze over Britain and northern Europe.
Eithad Airways and Emirates suspended flights from the UAE to London Heathrow airport until further notice and British Airways cancelled its flights from Abu Dhabi to London.
Heathrow has been at a virtual standstill since Saturday and the airport was closed completely yesterday by heavy snow. Gatwick airport, south of London, remained open but dozens of flights had to be cancelled or diverted.
It was a similar scene across Europe with thousands of flights cancelled or severely delayed at major hubs including Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Geneva, Munich, Copenhagen and Paris. Thousands of passengers had to camp out at Brussels airport in Belgium.
More severe weather is forecast for the next few days, meaning airlines are unable to tell passengers when they will be able to fly.
Holly Sands, who has lived in Dubai for three years and has been planning her trip home for a year, was crossing her fingers last night that her scheduled Emirates flight this morning would not be cancelled.
"I go home to London to see family every Christmas and this whole situation with the flights to Heathrow has ruined that," she said last night. "It's really frustrating because it's the only real time we have together as a family.
"The Emirates website still had the flight scheduled for departure on time but I've seen other media saying they've cancelled all flights to Heathrow for 24 hours. I have no idea if I will be able to get a new flight before Christmas.
"When I spoke to Emirates they didn't seem to know if they would clear the backlog first or if the scheduled flights would go on time when the weather gets better. I've got no alternative except to go to the airport in the morning and hope for the best."
The freeze also affected travellers trying to fly to the UAE from Europe. Jordan Young, 20, spent six hours trying to reach Heathrow from north London, only to find that her Emirates flight to Dubai had been cancelled.
"I was devastated because I thought I cannot spend holidays with family," she said. "I cannot wait to get away from the English weather for a bit.
"I know loads of people who are upset because they cannot spend Christmas with their families."
Basant Mohamed, 23, from Canada, was one of the lucky few who made it back home to the UAE when her flight from Birmingham took off after a 95-minute delay. "I was lucky, other people's flights were cancelled and a lot of people are still stuck," she said. "Thank God I am back, I was lucky, I don't like England's weather, it's very gloomy."
Both Etihad Airways and Emirates said last night they were continuing to monitor the weather situation in Europe and travellers should check their websites for updates.
"Etihad has experienced significant disruptions to its flights as a result of the closure of Heathrow airport,” the company said. "The airline is in close contact with the UK authorities and once the airport reopens Etihad will do everything possible to have passengers flying to their destination.”
An Emirates spokeswoman said 10 flights between Dubai and Heathrow were cancelled. However, flight EK002 was able to depart from Gatwick after passengers were transported there by bus.
Two of Etihad’s flights to London had to be diverted on Saturday because of the severe weather, one to Manchester and the other to Frankfurt. Passengers on the Manchester flight were taken to London via coach and travellers in Frankfurt received hotel or lounge accommodation, the airline said.
Etihad, which runs three flights to London a day, urged travellers to check its website for the latest flight delays or cancellations.
Emirates said: “The airline is not accepting passengers for travel to London Heathrow for the next 24 hours. Emirates’ flights to and from other European destinations are operating as close to schedule as possible but are dependent on the constantly changing weather conditions.”
* The National, with additional reporting by Hala Khalaf