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Air Canada planes sit on the tarmac at Pearson International Aiport in Toronto on Jan. 7, 2014.FERNANDO MORALES/The Globe and Mail

Canada's largest airport says the deep freeze gripping the eastern part of the continent forced it to temporarily halt landings for hundreds of flights in Toronto, creating a chaotic ripple effect across the country for travellers.

The Greater Toronto Airports Authority, which oversees Toronto's Pearson International Airport, said Tuesday's poor weather – temperatures plunged to about -40 overnight with the wind chill – prompted it to shut down its runways for North American flights from the early hours of the morning to 10 a.m. local time. Other major North American airports facing similarly frigid conditions did not take such drastic measures, although thousands of flights were delayed or cancelled elsewhere in Canada and the U.S.

The ground stop contributed to chaos at the airport, where hundreds of frustrated travellers were stranded for hours and police were called several times to restore order at baggage carousels and check-in counters.

The shutdown at Pearson was only one part of Ontario's travel woes: Dozens of Toronto Transit Commission streetcars were inoperable during the rush hours, commuter rail service was delayed and police shut down 200 kilometres of Highway 400, a key north-south commuter highway.

Pearson airport's website showed 776 flights were cancelled on Tuesday out of 1,559 scheduled, or nearly 50 per cent. About half of the cancellations were for arrivals and the other half for departures. By comparison, Pearson's cancellations equated nearly a quarter of the number for the entire United States, according to figures from

Runways were shut down because of the extreme cold's impact on equipment and efforts to minimize time outdoors for employees, GTAA spokeswoman Corrinne Madden said. "It was a matter of operational effectiveness and making sure our employees could operate safely with the temperatures. We experienced issues with equipment freezing and equipment slowing down, which caused some operational challenges."

Major U.S. carriers cancelled hundreds of flights from airports such as Chicago O'Hare and Boston Logan, but runways at those terminals remained open. In Canada, Air Canada and WestJet were able to operate from an array of airports, but had to scrap flights because they could not get into Toronto.

Ms. Madden said the decision to halt arrivals from other North American terminals for several hours was made after consulting with airlines and Nav Canada, which provides air navigation services.

Robert Palmer, spokesman for WestJet, said the company's planes could not take off Monday night, creating a bottleneck at the gates.

While Pearson airport handled overseas arrivals, the idea behind keeping out North American flights was to reduce the number of planes on the runways for safety reasons and to help Pearson airport workers to catch up with duties such as deicing aircraft and moving a backlog of aircraft and luggage. "We are working with the airlines to get passengers moving through the terminal. We're going to keep up with the weather as best as we can, and work with all of our partners so that we can get operations back to normal," Ms. Madden said.

GTAA officials noted that the safety concerns were related to high winds and extreme cold. Ms. Madden added that the weather was so harsh that "it really was a safety concern to have baggage handlers and other employees out on the airfield at that time."

Until 10 a.m., arrivals from other North American airports either held in the air, were redirected, cancelled or postponed.

Montreal's Trudeau International Airport was still running, but the ground stop at Pearson created a backlog of Toronto-bound travellers, then a rush through security checkpoints once the freeze was lifted, an Aéroports de Montréal spokeswoman said.

While many wondered why Pearson could not handle the kind of weather airports elsewhere in Canada often face, Ms. Madden said the comparison did not hold. "We take on larger aircraft and a greater volume of aircraft than many other airports in Canada, so problems can compound a bit faster," she said.

With reports from The Canadian Press and Reuters

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