Hurricane Irma has been described as the biggest challenge for the industry since the Icelandic ash cloud crisis seven years ago.
Thousands of British holidaymakers were in Florida and the Caribbean when Hurricane Irma hit at the end of last week.
Florida, Cuba, the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, St Martin, St Barts, Turks and Caicos and Barbuda were among the worst‑affected areas. At least 38 people are reported to have died in the Caribbean and 11 in the US.
USAirtours had about 400 clients in resort and booked to travel. Chief executive Guy Novik said: “There has never been a time [before] when every major airport in Florida has been shut. This is the biggest challenge since the Icelandic ash cloud [in 2010].”
A full-scale evacuation operation swung into action to get clients home, but rescue efforts were hampered by communications problems and airport closures.
A limited flight programme in and out of Miami and Orlando resumed on Tuesday after about 10,000 flights were cancelled, while Orlando Sanford airport and Varadero in Cuba remained closed to commercial flights.
Cruise lines were due to resume sailings out of Florida on Tuesday after more than 20 itineraries were cancelled, delayed or amended last week. Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line deployed ships to help with humanitarian efforts in the worst-affected areas.
Walt Disney World Resort Florida was forced to close for just the sixth time in 45 years and Universal Orlando shut for two days. Both reopened on Tuesday, while SeaWorld Orlando was due to reopen on Wednesday.
Thomas Cook had just over 9,000 customers in Orlando and about 5,000 in Cuba. The operator evacuated close to 2,000 customers from Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo into Varadero, Cuba.
Cook sent out extra staff, with more than 60 now in resort, to help its team in Cuba. Most customers were due to be back in the UK today on Thursday (September 14).
It defended its response after reports that UK holidaymakers were left in Cuba while Canadian holidaymakers were flown home.
A Cook spokeswoman said regulations prevented this.
“We are sending transatlantic flights that require legal rest stops for crew and pilots and can’t carry out a round-trip,” she said. “We ensured customers were in hotels built to withstand a hurricane.”
Thomson and First Choice offered counselling to customers and said it was looking into media reports of client complaints about how they were looked after in Cuba “as a priority”.
Alan Bowen, legal adviser to the Association of Atol Companies, warned the reputations of Tui and Thomas Cook could be affected following criticism from holidaymakers. He estimated the cost to operators would run into tens of millions of pounds.
Caribtours has taken the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, St Martin, St Barts, Turks and Caicos, and Barbuda off sale and is rebooking about 70 clients due to travel until the end of the year.
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