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Travel chaos as flights canceled

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Passengers at Heathrow faced long delays on Thursday.

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Air passengers across Europe faced major delays on Thursday after London's Heathrow Airport was closed to all incoming flights as police said they had disrupted a major terrorist plot.

In a statement, BAA, which owns Heathrow, said the airport was still experiencing "severe disruption" to its operation, but the situation was "very slowly beginning to ease."

"It is our intention to return to as normal operational conditions as possible within the new restrictions tomorrow," BAA Managing Director Tony Douglas said.

British Airways said all short haul flights in and out of Heathrow -- the world's busiest international airport -- had been canceled for the rest of the day and advised passengers who did not need to travel today to stay away from the airport.

It has also canceled some domestic and short haul services to and from London Gatwick but said it aimed to operate as many long haul services as possible from both airports, subject to delays.

The UK's threat warning level was raised to "critical" -- meaning "an attack is expected imminently" -- after police said they had arrested 21 people in connection with a terrorist plot to blow up aircraft flying to the U.S. (Full story)

Meanwhile, with thousands of passengers already facing long delays, several other airlines also canceled flights to and from the UK.

Germany's Lufthansa and Air France were due to resume flights to London later on Thursday.

Alitalia, Iberia, KLM and SAS also canceled flights to London while all flights to London airports from Brussels and Athens were grounded.

As of 12:45 p.m., a total of 231 arrivals had been canceled, including 180 international and 40 domestic flights, according to a Heathrow statement.

A total of 224 departures have also been canceled, including 176 international and 48 domestic flights.

Heathrow is asking passengers not to come to the airport Thursday unless absolutely necessary and requests passengers whose flights have been canceled to return home and contact their carrier to rebook flights.

Budget airline Easyjet said it had canceled all flights out of Gatwick, Stansted and Luton for the rest of the day.

Channel Tunnel operators Eurostar said rail services had been put on a heightened state of alert as thousands of stranded air passengers sort alternative routes out of London, Reuters reported.

Transport Secretary Douglas Alexander said: "Earlier this morning all UK airports and all airlines operating in to and out of the UK were asked to implement a heightened level of security and this step has been taken to ensure maximum security on all flights so people can go ahead with their travel arrangements.

"However, ensuring maximum security unfortunately will involve immediate and severe disruption for passengers with significant delays likely at all UK airports. This heightened level of security will last only as long as the situation demands, we will keep this under review."

Travelers from Heathrow and other UK airports faced long delays on Thursday morning as authorities implemented stringent security checks and said that no hand luggage would be allowed onto planes. Passengers were being allowed to carry essential items such as wallets, travel documents and medical items in transparent plastic bags. (Full story)

BAA said all passengers would be hand-searched with travelers to the U.S. subjected to a secondary search at the boarding gate. Douglas said travelers due to fly over the next few days would also be subject to the new security procedures and urged them to arrive prepared to travel without hand luggage.

CNN's Adrian Finighan said Heathrow was "effectively closed," describing scenes inside the airport's terminals as "organized chaos" while skies overhead were "eerily quiet."

"It is chaotic, it is far busier than normal and the queues are horrendous," said Finighan. He said the presence of armed police with sniffer dogs inside the airport was "very visible."

Lengthy queues, cancelations and delays were also reported at London's Gatwick, Stansted and Luton airports, Manchester Airport, Newcastle Airport, Glasgow and Edinburgh airports in Scotland and Belfast Airport in Northern Ireland.

At Stansted, staff listed more than 40 canceled flights on a board outside the airport as a line of passengers stretched hundreds of meters from the security check-in area back to the main entrance, the UK's Press Association reported.

In the U.S., a United Airline spokeswoman said its flights from London were delayed by at least two-and-a-half hours.

American Airlines canceled six Thursday flights between the U.S. and London to accommodate the delays at Heathrow airport, The Associated Press reported. (Full story)

Spokesman John Hotard said the airline's remaining 13 flights to and from London were expected to run up to three-and-a-half hours late. We're going to be flying out of Heathrow today," Hotard told AP. "It's just that it's so congested right now."

A Delta Airlines spokesman said Delta flights were expected to run as normal, but warned of delays to incoming flights from London, AP reported.

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