Snow and ice grounded the vast majority of flights in and out of Britain, with London Heathrow the worst-affected airport.
The airport cancelled all incoming flights on Sunday (December 19) after the authorities were unable to de-ice the taxiing areas and stands where planes are parked.
As the airport was inundated with increasingly angry passengers trying to leave, many other travellers faced a frantic scramble to get home to Britain in time for Christmas.
Most flights this week were already full to capacity during what is the busiest period of the year.
One million passengers were due to pass through Heathrow alone this week and with warnings of further bad weather in the next few days, some travellers whose flights have been cancelled were told they faced waits of up to five days.
As passengers were forced to sleep in terminal buildings for a third night, there was mounting criticism of BAA, the airport operator.
Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, rang Colin Matthews, the chief executive of BAA, to demand answers over why the airport had failed to cope.
Mr Johnson said: “I stressed the huge economic importance of Heathrow. I also expressed my hope that they would pull out all the stops to ensure that the planes get moving again. Most people realise that it has not snowed at Heathrow for some time so it is vital everything is done to get the aircraft and passengers moving again.”
As the row over the airport closure intensified:
Forecasters warned that parts of Britain could see record low temperatures this week of -26C (-15F). Heathrow will experience lows of about -9C (16F) tonight and further snowfall is expected in the South East during the evening rush hour.
Motorists continued to struggle. The M25 was closed in both directions for about six hours while drivers on the M40 in Oxfordshire suffered severe delays.
Commuters were warned to expect treacherous conditions with thick ice and freezing fog today. Train passengers also face delays and cancellations, particularly in the North. Eurostar services between London and Paris have also been affected.
Air travel experts warned that even when the weather improves it will take at least 48 hours before flights return to normal.
BAA, which is controlled by Spain’s Ferrovial, claimed it had spent an extra £6million on equipment to deal with snow and ice compared with last year. But with pre-tax profits expected to near £1 billion this year, the operator has been accused of failing to invest properly in equipment to cope with the extreme cold.
Only 16 flights left Heathrow yesterday out of a total of 650 scheduled services. More than 400,000 passengers had been due to pass through the airport this weekend. Although the runways were deemed safe, the areas around the stands remained covered in ice making it too dangerous to move planes.
Severe delays and widespread cancellations were also reported at Stansted, Luton, Exeter, London City, Birmingham, Bristol, Southampton, Cardiff and Birmingham airports, while Aberdeen Airport was forced to close twice during the day.
Airline sources noted that while services at Gatwick — which BAA was recently forced to sell — were subjected to delays and cancellations the airport fared better than Heathrow. Almost 300 of its 700 scheduled flights landed or took off.
A source at one major airline said: “Lessons really need to be learned from this situation. There was a large snowfall in a short period of time but the major issue for us has been a failure to communicate information to the airlines.
“We had aircraft de-iced and ready to go on the tarmac at Heathrow but we were not getting any information from BAA.”
Willie Walsh, the British Airways chief executive, was said to have had a furious exchange with Mr Matthews, after the airport operator claimed it was the airlines’ responsibility to de-ice the planes.
One engineer based at Heathrow said that by the time they hadde-iced an aircraft ready for take off it had already started to freeze up again.
Frustrated passengers, forced to bed down in airports said there had been little or no communication from the authorities.
Many of those who hoped to fly over the weekend were told they may not be able to travel until Christmas Eve.
The dire situation was reminiscent of the scenes during the volcanic ash cloud earlier this year. But critics said this situation was more avoidable as the heavy snow and ice had been forecast at least a week earlier.
Philip Hammond, the Transport Secretary, said: “I understand the immense frustration of people, many of whom will be with families looking to get away for Christmas.
“The airport operators and the airlines have to think about getting services back to normal operation as quickly as they possibly can.”
Mr Hammond said he was seeking scientific advice to decide whether heavy snowfall was likely to be a regular occurrence in Britain.
But Alan Johnson, the shadow chancellor, accused the Government of failing to do enough to keep the country moving.
He said: “It is a big issue when people believe the Government have just left it for them and said 'get a shovel or stay at home’. Governing is about more than that when you hit a crisis.”
Forecasters last night warned there would be no let up to the Arctic conditions until Wednesday at the earliest, putting the travel plans of millions in jeopardy.
“The coming week will not offer much respite in terms of temperatures and snowfall, so conditions for those travelling are unlikely to improve,” said John Hammond of the Met Office.
More than 200,000 passengers a day pass through Heathrow at this time of year. BAA, Britain’s largest airport operator, yesterday defended its performance but apologised for the misery suffered by passengers.
A spokesman said: “The change in temperature overnight led to a significant build up of ice on parking stands around the planes and this requires the airfield to remain closed until it is safe to move planes around.”
But airlines and passengers were less than convinced. Paul Charles, a travel industry veteran, said: “It beggars belief that lessons have not been learned from the ash cloud crisis and previous bad weather situations.”
David Reynolds, head of safety at the British Airline Pilots Association, was also scathing. He said: “British airports have been pretty poor. Our neighbours across the Channel do not suffer as badly as we do when we get a cold snap.”
Tim Jeans, the managing director of Monarch Airlines, called for a reassessment of Britain’s transport capabilities. “We have not coped well. The infrastructure — not just at the airports but the road infrastructure — completely seized up.”