Fears were growing last night that the Italian airline Alitalia would collapse, days after some 85,000 British holidaymakers were stranded abroad when the travel firm XL Leisure Tours went bust.
Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, rushed to consult ministers in Rome after the national carrier announced that it might be forced into liquidation. The airline's bankruptcy administrator, Augusto Fantozzi, was reported to have said flights could not be guaranteed because Alitalia was unable to obtain fuel.
Meanwhile, administrators for XL Leisure Tours, which went bust on Friday, refused to allow officials to use the firm's grounded fleet to help bring back the stranded passengers, it was claimed last night.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said it had approached Kroll – which was called in on Friday as joint administrators for XL – with a request to allow use of the planes, but claimed it had been rebuffed. "We offered to extend XL Airways' licence to allow us to take passengers but Kroll refused," a spokesman said.
"We offered to pay for the use of the aircraft as well as fuel and crews as it was our preferred option to use planes which are sitting on the tarmac doing nothing."
Kroll denied the claim, saying that it had "explored every avenue" to help repatriate customers in discussions with the CAA, "including continuing to operate the fleet".
A spokeswoman said: "The CAA was not in a position to offer terms that were reasonable."
Kroll said earlier that people who paid by credit card or used a tour operator affiliated to Atol, which operates an air travel protection scheme, should get their money back, but those who booked a flight directly with XL Airways would not be protected. In some cases, travel insurance and payment by Visa card will also be liable for refunds.
The CAA, which is co-ordinating the repatriation of XL's passengers, has asked Monarch Airlines and Virgin Atlantic to bring people home in spare seats and extra chartered flights.
Sir Richard Branson, the boss of Virgin Airlines, called for an urgent review of the rules governing failed airlines . "It does not make sense for aircraft to be lying idle at UK airports when they should be used to bring back stranded passengers," he said.
The first victims of XL's collapse began to arrive back yesterday. The CAA said it had successfully repatriated 11,900 people by last night. Among them was Alison Hill, 37, a lawyer from Redditch, Worcestershire, who flew into Gatwick yesterday morning on a specially chartered Monarch flight from Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt and spoke of her concerns that she might not have been able to find a flight home.
"I spent the whole day in tears at reception with a very unhappy two-year-old wondering if I was ever going to get home," she said.
As well as those stranded abroad, thousands more people waiting to begin their holidays were left stuck at UK airports. Mark and Kelly Belcher, a newlywed couple from Essex, were devastated when their honeymoon to Skiathos in Greece was cancelled.
The Foreign Office said British embassies were on standby to help nationals get in touch with families back in the UK for financial assistance.
There was better news for travellers heading to Europe by train yesterday and relief that services were beginning to return to normal after a fire in the Channel Tunnel on Thursday. Eurostar began a reduced service at 7am yesterday, after a 16-hour battle by hundreds of firefighters from Britain and France to subdue the blaze which raged inside the Channel rail link.
Travel chaos: Normal service will resume...
* Eurotunnel announces a limited service through the Channel Tunnel on Saturday morning.
* Priority for rail passengers and lorry freight over cars, for now.
* 85,000 British holidaymakers stranded abroad after the collapse of XL Leisure Group.
* Thousands more who booked with XL forced to make alternative arrangements or cancel breaks.
* Civil Aviation Authority says that people who booked through Atol-affiliated operators or paid by credit card will be fully compensated.