Air travel to and from Britain have been severely disrupted as drastic security measures were swiftly introduced following the discovery of a suspected plot to blow up planes on transatlantic flights.
Many airlines said they were cancelling all flights to Britain and to the epicentre of the threat, London Heathrow, one of the world's busiest airports, and warned the problems could last for several days.
The inter-connected nature of international air travel meant the disruption caused by chaos at Heathrow in the wake of the new measures was rippling out across the world.
Armed police monitor crowds of people at Gatwick Airport. US airlines warned of serious disruption to transatlantic travel Thursday as flights were cancelled and airports thrown into chaos following an alleged plot in Britain to blow up passenger jets.(AFP/Carl de Souza)
In contrast to their European counterparts, and despite a request by the British Airports Authority, US airlines said they were not planning to cancel flights to Heathrow, but warned of severe delays.
British anti-terrorist police said the plot involved explosives concealed in hand luggage, which led to security being beefed up at most of Britain's airports.
British Home Secretary John Reid said police were confident that the main suspects in the plot "have been accounted for" but explained that the country's security alert had been raised to its highest level -- "critical" -- as a precautionary measure.
As a result, passengers on flights from around the world which were still flying to Britain were subjected to new security restrictions and increased checks.
Hand luggage was banned, except for items such as baby food and some medicines.
British Airways said it was cancelling all its short-haul flights on Thursday between Heathrow and other British and European cities as well as the Libyan capital Tripoli.
It said however it "aims to operate as many long-haul services as possible from Heathrow and London Gatwick," Britain's second busiest airport, although warned they were subject to delays.
Short-haul international flights to and from British provincial airports were less affected.
No-frills operator easyJet cancelled all its remaining flights due to depart Thursday from three airports bordering London.
Other European airlines were forced to ground many of their flights.
Lufthansa of Germany said it was pulling all flights to Britain until 1500 GMT. It said 22 flights and 3,041 passengers would be affected, but that it expected flights later in the day to go ahead as planned.
Flights between Spain and Britain, normally full of holidaymakers at this time of the year, were severely disrupted.
Spanish national carrier Iberia had cancelled nine flights by mid-afternoon and airport authority AENA said it had been told that no flights could land at Heathrow before 1400 GMT.
Italy's Alitalia suspended all its flights to Britain and aviation authorities in the Netherlands said they were cancelling all flights to Heathrow until at least 1800 GMT. An estimated 1,500 passengers on KLM flights from Amsterdam's Schiphol airport had been affected by 1300 GMT.
French airline Air France said it had cancelled all its 10 flights to Heathrow until 2000 GMT, among a total of some 50 in all scratched from France to the London airport.
They included 25 from Paris's main airport Charles de Gaulle, three from Orly and eight from the Mediterranean city of Nice, leaving hundreds of passengers stranded, airport officials said.
Turkey, Greece, Denmark and Sweden also suspended flights to London.
The Russian transport ministry said it was leaving the decision to individual airlines, but Aeroflot said its morning flight to Heathrow had landed as normal.
US airlines, believed to be the targets of the alleged bomb plot, said they were not cancelling flights, but the US Department of Homeland Security issued its highest-level threat warning for all US-bound planes from Britain.
"It's a fluid situation. But we have no cancellations of UK-bound flights," said Brandon Borrman, a spokesman for United Airlines.
In Asia, Japanese airlines said they were waiting for further information and that it was highly possible they would have to cancel flights to Britain.
Thai Airways said one of its flights took off for Heathrow around 0500 GMT.
Other flights to London were to leave Bangkok around 1700 GMT and so far none had been delayed or cancelled, a spokesman said.
Airport officials and travel agents in China reported no cancellations or delays of flights although Hong Kong's flag carrier Cathay Pacific warned of delays going to London.
African airlines were also affected.
A spokesman for Kenya Airways said it would comply with requests from the British authorities to introduce new restrictions on hand luggage.
Copyright © 2006 AFP