Thousands of British tourists stranded in the US, after being caught by the tropical storm that has battered the eastern seaboard, face further chaos with long delays to home-bound flights.
Torrential rain and very strong winds across the region have prevented airlines from operating flights at four of the main airports. The threat of severe flooding could mean further delays even after the passing of Irene, which was downgraded from a hurricane on Sunday morning, airlines warned.
British Airways and Virgin Atlantic were among those forced to cancel flights to New York and other eastern cities.
More than 6,000 flights were cancelled on Sunday, with the biggest shutdowns affecting New York, Boston and Philadelphia, according to FlightStats.com, which tracks flights. New York’s JFK airport, where the National Weather Service recorded 58mph winds on Saturday, and Newark, were closed.
After battering the mid-Atlantic coast with hurricane force, Irene was still bringing sustained winds of 65mph, according to the National Hurricane Centre.
Airlines have already cancelled more than 9,000 flights since the storm, estimated to have a huge span of 500 miles, came ashore at North Carolina on Saturday. There were growing fears that a surge of up to 2.4m (8ft) of water could breach flood defences in Manhattan.
It remains unclear when a normal service could resume. Holidaymakers could face waiting up to several days for flights as airports experience backlogs. The biggest airlines hoped to re-start flights in earnest on Monday but operators could struggle to find seats during this holiday period.
Those planning to travel to the storm-hit region have been urged to check with airlines before going to the airport.
“Due to the predicted impact of the hurricane Irene we have cancelled a significant number of services to the eastern seaboard,” a BA spokesman said. “Flights to and from New York JFK and Newark are particularly badly affected after the local authorities [decided] to completely close the airports for much of the weekend.”
Passengers whose flights are cancelled can claim a full refund. Those who were due to fly between now and Tuesday are being offered the chance to alter their booking, the spokesman added.
Virgin Atlantic warned that people waiting to travel back to the UK from the US might have to wait more than three or four days for a flight. “We very much regret we have had to cancel flights to and from New York, and some Boston services,” the airline said in a statement on its website. “We are focusing all our energy on a recovery plan to bring people back home. Because flights are already very full it will be a little while before everybody is accommodated.”
The Foreign Office has urged British travellers caught up in the hurricane to follow the advice of local authorities, monitor local television and radio, and leave the area if advised.
The Federal Aviation Administration has suspended air traffic control services at JFK International, Newark Liberty International, LaGuardia, Teterboro, and Stewart International, airports.
Airlines at JFK, Newark and LaGuardia cancelled more than 3,000 flights on Sunday, according to FlightStats.com.
Airports in some east-coast cities, where Irene had already gone through, are starting to return to a normal service. Baltimore Washington International airport said flights were expected to slowly resume on Sunday.
The Association of British Travel Agents said that between 5,000 and 10,000 British holidaymakers were likely to be in New York at the moment. The city was the single most popular long-haul destination among British tourists, ABTA said. .
New York’s entire transit system, which was shut down for the first time in history because of hurricane Irene, stayed closed, and Broadway shows and baseball games were cancelled.