Tens of thousands of BA passengers stranded as rains stall de-icing operations

British Airways (BA) cancelled over 140 outbound short-haul flights from Heathrow Airport, and 26 long-haul departures yesterday affecting 50,000 passengers. The carrier cancelled 70 additional short-haul round trips today, plus nine long-haul flights, which included including departures to Rio, Tokyo and Los Angeles. The latest cancellations are expected to hit another 15,000 people.

Departures from Europe's busiest airport started to go wrong before dawn on Sunday and overnight torrential rain meant that de-icing could not begin until the first wave of planes were ready to go.

The 7am to Geneva left four hours late and as queues developed while sleet and snow fell, aircraft that had already been de-iced needed to br re- treated as ice started to build up on their wings while they waited for clearance to depart.

BA operates an ambitious schedule, which most of the time works well, but things went wrong yesterday. At 10am, BA operations staff proactively cancelled 20 flights, to create ''firebreaks'' in the schedule in a bid to avoid further cancellations. But that number quickly doubled and the first seriously wintry day at Heathrow ended up making a mess of schedules.

Other airlines were marginally affected, with Austrian Airlines, KLM, Lufthansa and Swiss cancelling flights to and from their hubs.

Meanwhile, as planes were grounded at Heathrow and heavy snow fell across the UK causing travel chaos, dozens of passengers tweeted from the runway, where they are sat on planes that are severely delayed.

"We're very sorry that some of our customers' travel plans have been affected by heavy snowfall being experienced across the UK and Europe," a BA spokesman said. "For safety reasons it has been agreed that the number of aircraft that can land at Heathrow each hour will be reduced."

A Heathrow spokesperson said, "Weather across the UK and Europe is resulting in some passengers experiencing disruption to their journeys. Passengers are advised to check their flight status with their airline before coming to the airport.

"As always, Heathrow's top priority is the safety of passengers, we apologise to those whose travel is being affected by today's weather. Our operations team is working closely with the airport's on-site MET office, to monitor weather forecasts and minimise disruption to passenger journeys."