Frustrated passengers line-up during flight delays and cancellations due to extreme cold weather and wind chill at Pearson International Airport in Toronto on Tuesday January 7, 2014. Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press
The relentless extreme weather conditions in much of Canada caused flight delays and cancellations across the country Tuesday and generally wreaked havoc on air travel.
A so-called ground stop at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, where temperatures dropped to –35 C to –40 C with the wind chill overnight, halted nearly all North American arrivals in the morning.
The ground stop was lifted at around 10 a.m. ET, but travellers still faced long lineups and massive delays — and officials said it's not clear how long it will take to clear the backlog.
About 200 flights were cancelled and many departing flights were delayed.
The ground stop, also called a ground freeze, was put in place because of the extreme cold's impact on equipment and efforts to minimize time outdoors for employees, said Greater Toronto Airports Authority spokeswoman Shereen Daghstani.
"It was the extreme weather conditions that impacted safe operations and employee safety," she said. "When it comes to refuelling or removing the bags, those need to be done by employees."
The problems were reportedly compounded by a backlog of planes waiting for gates to open to offload passengers, travellers waiting hours to collect their luggage and long lineups snaking through the Pearson terminals.
Police deal with irate passengers
Thousands of would-be passengers queued inside the airport awaiting word of their flight status or simply trying to retrieve their luggage. Hundreds of bags and suitcases are piled up in the airport's baggage claims area, and airline officials said some travellers could be waiting days to get their luggage.
As tensions at the airport ran high Tuesday morning, police were forced to move extra officers into the arrivals and departures areas for crowd control, the CBC's Tony Smyth reported.
Peel regional police said five extra officers were called to the airport around 5:25 a.m. to deal with a group of about 300 people at a luggage carousel in Terminal 3.
"[They] were getting very frustrated and irate, because there was a ground freeze and they weren't getting their baggage," " said Const. Lilly Fitzpatrick.
Police "helped calm people down, they answered questions, they tried to get the information that the people needed as to when they were going to be getting their baggage," Fitzpatrick said.
Airlines are urging passengers to check their flight status before heading to the airport because of cancellations or delays.
The ground stop in Toronto created a domino effect at other airports in the country.
At Halifax's Stanfield International Airport, most flights slated to leave Tuesday morning were grounded as they were either headed to Toronto or scheduled to stop there en route to destinations further west. Exacerbating the delays, other passengers have been stranded at the airport since Friday because a storm.
At Montreal's Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, passengers were faced with lengthy delays Tuesday morning as most flights headed to Toronto and Chicago were cancelled.
Many passengers at Winnipeg's James A. Richardson International Airport were also forced to reschedule their flights because of the delays and cancellations.
'Light at the end of the tunnel'
The weather is miserable across much of Canada, with all of southern Ontario and most of the north facing dangerous wind chills ranging from –30 C to –45 C. Some areas of the south also face blizzard and snow squall warnings.
Forecasters say the strong winds will carry the squalls farther inland and snowfall amounts up to 15 centimetres are possible while visibilities could drop to nil in blizzard conditions.
"I think where we're feeling the worst of it, and you have to remember cold is a relative term ... I think into parts of Ontario, certainly southern Ontario, this morning is where we'll see folks being more miserable than other parts of the country that generally deal with some colder temperatures," said CBC meteorologist Jay Scotland.
"So we are looking at bitterly cold temperatures in Ontario, in Quebec."
In Quebec, wind, rain and blizzard warnings are in effect for most of the province. Fewer than 1,000 Hydro-Québec customers remained without power Tuesday afternoon, down from a high of 30,000 on Monday afternoon.
"We're seeing an abnormal start to the winter," Scotland said.
"We really are just over two weeks into the winter. We saw a very cold wrap to fall heading into winter so it feels like winter has been around a lot longer than it has been."
Scotland said most of the country is forecast to return to seasonal temperatures by the weekend.
"So there is light at the end of the tunnel," he said.
"Unfortunately, another bitterly cold one to get through today for much of the country from the Prairies, Ontario, Quebec, temperatures dropping in Atlantic Canada."
Newfoundland braces for melt
Newfoundland was hit by a power outage that began over the weekend, but most of the households affected had their power restored by Tuesday afternoon.
Officials in Newfoundland say rotating outages could return during peak demand periods. At the peak of the outages Saturday morning, about 190,000 customers were without power.
Weather warnings that had been in place for much of the province were lifted late Tuesday morning, but CBC reporter Vik Adhopia said the province is bracing for more problems in the face of an extreme temperature shift.
"It's been a complete turnaround in the weather. We went from blizzard conditions and extreme cold to this freezing rain, and of course that puts the power lines at risk, and Newfoundland Power has redeployed its crews across the island in anticipation of new outages," he said.
"We also have so much snow on the ground that there's a whole other problem that we could be faced with and that's a major melt as temperatures head up to 7 C."