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Passengers booked on a flight from Gatwick to Florence were told the plane had departed empty without them because of delays at the West Sussex airport amid the widespread half-term travel chaos hitting hubs across the UK.

The Vueling flight VY6209 had been due to take off at 8.20pm on Monday, but the Airbus A319 – which can carry up to 144 passengers – left nearly two hours late with no customers on board.

Nisha Gupta was booked on the trip with her husband, Ash. She told the PA news agency they had to queue for more than four hours to check in luggage, but when they arrived at the departure gate they were told no passengers could board the plane due to a staff shortage.

The 32-year-old, from Windsor, Berkshire, said: “Eventually we were told by staff that the pilots made a decision to fly the plane back empty without a single passenger onboard due to Florence airspace closing.

“The environmental impact of this is insane and a decision was clearly made to prioritise cost implications over customer experience and environmental impact.

“Throughout this entire experience, there was a maximum of three staff members dealing with all Vueling flights that day.

“We got to the airport at 3pm and did not leave until 2am after having to wait around to give details to the one staff member dealing with all cancelled flights, taking details and trying to book people into hotels.

“No food or drinks were provided at all. Neither were any meal vouchers as per customer rights in the instance of a delay.”

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Vueling’s passengers at Gatwick continued to face severe difficulties. One person posted a photograph showing a large crowd waiting to check in, with the caption: “Vueling you need to get a grip of this absolute chaos at Gatwick.

One member of staff to handle this many people is completely unacceptable. Do you understand the impact this has on people?”

The airline was approached for comment.

Gatwick has been particularly hard hit by the half-term travel chaos affecting British airports, but there have also been long queues and delays at other key hubs including Manchester, Glasgow, Heathrow and Stansted.

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