Bereaved given first flights back to America

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The two big US airlines restarted a limited transatlantic service, but there was still no indication when British carriers would resume flight

The two big US airlines restarted a limited transatlantic service, but there was still no indication when British carriers would resume flights.

Eight of the 21 scheduled American Airlines planes were due to leave for the US yesterday from Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham and Glasgow. A spokesman for the company said that management hoped to send more today, but the position was "fluid". People bereaved by the atrocities were being allotted seats first, as well as others who urgently needed to return to the United States.

A "limited" service was also being provided by United Airlines, and the carrier planned to operate five out of its 16 services from Heathrow. How many aircraft would take off today was not clear. A spokes-man said: "We are going to monitor the security situation and decide as soon as we can."

No passengers were being given preferential treatment by United. "We are trying to accommodate as many passengers as we can. As a matter of principle we are not in the business of giving one person priority over another," the spokesman said. The two US airlines – which operated the planes hijacked in the attacks – were also able to fly aircraft to Britain from North America.

A US-owned holiday airline plane run by the ATA company, with 360 British tourists on board, also arrived at Manchester airport from Orlando, Florida.

Two more ATA planes left for Orlando later – one from Gatwick airport and one from Manchester. Both had 360 British holidaymakers on board who had booked their trips through the tour company Travel City Direct.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of travellers were stranded at airports all over the world – from Japan to South Africa – because of Tuesday's attacks. Their chances of getting to America over the next few days were substantially better if they were travelling with a US airline.

All 23 British Airways services to America remained suspended yesterday, pending further information from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on extra security requirements. Officials from the Department of Transport and the Civil Aviation Authority were in constant touch with their American counterparts, but there was no indication when UK flights would restart.

Three out of four BA flights to Canada took off, however, and the airline expects services to the country to be back to normal today. Normal operations to Tel Aviv were resumed, but there was still a ban on BA flights to Islamabad, Pakistan.

Virgin Atlantic said it had applied to the FAA for clearance for its 16 daily services to America but was still waiting for a reply. The company's daily service between Gatwick and Toronto has restarted.

Another sign of normality was the decision to reopen London City Airport in the Docklands, albeit with amended flight paths. The ban on low flying over London is due to be lifted at midnight tonight.

When it became clear that there was a disaster in the US on Tuesday, some flights on their way to the country were diverted to Canada and Central America. Others were stopped mid-Atlantic and ordered back to the country they had left. Those diverted aircraft have been allowed to return to their bases. Some non-American airlines attempted to restart services on Thursday but were directed to abandon their journeys in mid-flight.

At one stage there was confusion over whether the decision to reopen American airspace, taken by the US Department of Transportation, covered foreign airlines. It has now emerged that the American authorities were concerned that extra security procedures at airports would lead to delays and an inability to cope with the normal number of services. They therefore decided to continue the ban on non-US planes. The British airports operator BAA said that normally some 50 aircraft left the UK for America daily, and vice versa.

Security at all American airports will be upgraded. Safety experts have said for some time that the system in America is "lax". Tighter procedures will cause delays, and there is some doubt whether full transatlantic timetables can be implemented. At British airports yesterday passengers continued to be the subject of even tighter security than usual, although UK standards are known to be among the highest in the world.