Bad weather and travel misery mars great summer getaway
The great summer getaway has been marred by bad weather and roads misery - and industrial action over the weekend could cause more gloom.
As the school holidays began in many parts of the UK, Britons packed up the car or took to the skies, with roads and airports heaving.
But it was less of a jolly holiday and more of a travel nightmare due to "intense" rain and wind battering parts of the UK and a 5.0-magnitude earthquake near Greek islands earlier - and that is before a strike planned by Spanish Air Traffic Control services takes place at the weekend.
The quake hit near the holiday island of Kos, but authorities say there were no immediate reports of any injury or serious damage.
Meanwhile in France, angry farmers finally relented after a day of protesting against low milk and meat prices by blocking roads to Mont Saint-Michel and the Alps, but they warned that more action is on the horizon.
Air traffic controllers at Nats said today is likely to be the busiest of the year, while Heathrow Airport was expecting its ''busiest day ever'' with an extra 31,000 passengers taking off.
Travel association Abta estimates that 2.1 million holidaymakers will head overseas this weekend, and a spokesman said the wet weather might tempt more people to make a last-minute booking.
"With rain predicted for many parts of the UK, late bookers may also be tempted to head off overseas with temperatures around the Mediterranean set to hit the mid- to high-30s over the next few days with guaranteed sunshine," he said.
MeteoGroup weather forecaster Billy Payne said it is ''unusual'' to see so much rainfall in 24 hours.
''We are looking at some very heavy rain across much of southern Britain today and into tonight," he said, adding: ''It's quite intense.''
His colleague, forecaster Nick Prebble, said 24mm of rain had fallen in Dunkeswell in Devon between 6am and noon.
RAC spokesman Simon Williams predicted "road misery" and called for drivers to stay calm.
"The combination of the remaining schools breaking up, the biggest flying day of the year and a typical British summer's rainy day is a recipe for road misery today as around two million cars bound for holiday take on normal commuter and business traffic.
"The heavy and persistent rain will make driving conditions challenging and there is a real risk that delays may lead to frustration behind the wheel.
"It is important all drivers, but particularly those desperate to get to their summer destinations, keep their cool so that their well-earned breaks don't begin with an accident.
"On Saturday in excess of two million motorists will be setting off on their summer holidays. In order to avoid the inevitable jams on routes to the coast, such as the M5 to Devon and Cornwall, drivers should set off as early as they possibly can."
Nats said routes to all the usual holiday destinations in Spain, the Canaries and southern Europe will have been busy.
Juliet Kennedy, operations director at Nats' Swanwick Control Centre in Hampshire, said: "We have been working incredibly closely with our airline and airport partners to make sure the whole system is prepared and ready to handle today's influx of passengers and flights."
On its website, easyJet refers to the Spanish Air Traffic Control strike in its latest travel information section.
"We have been advised of planned industrial action by Spanish Air Traffic Control services on Saturday July 25 and Sunday July 26.
"We plan to operate our normal schedule and like all airlines flying to and from Spain, we expect to be impacted by moderate delays during this period as a result of the strike.
"We recommend that all customers flying to or from Spain on those dates check the status of their flight on our Flight Tracker page before going to the airport," the airline said.
Nats said they are expecting the Spanish strike to have "minimal impact" on UK operations, adding that passengers should contact their airline for information about their flights.
Elsewhere, Operation Stack - where freight traffic is queued on sections of the M20 when cross-Channel services are disrupted - remains in place, and Kent Police warned it could continue until at least Sunday.
A Heathrow spokeswoman said that on a "normal" day the airport has an average of 200,000 passengers going through - with arrivals and departures roughly divided 50:50.
Today they will have had an extra 31,000 passenger departing and by 8.30am almost 29,000 passengers had already gone through security, she said.
It was set to be "the busiest day ever" with 131,046 passengers taking off.
As of 3pm, 75,229 passengers had gone through and operations were "running well", a spokeswoman said.
Heathrow Airport said the previous busiest day for departures was May 22 when there were 129,000 departing passengers.
On average, flights were running eleven minutes later than scheduled at Gatwick Airport including the 10.40am departure to Nantes, France, which was delayed by just over an hour.
An earlier flight to Almeria, Spain, due to depart at 5.45am did not leave until 11.37am, but Gatwick officials said 80% of flights were leaving on time.
Spain remains the number one destination for the UK market and, with the pound at an eight-year high against the euro, holidaymakers are flocking to other eurozone countries including Cyprus, France and Greece. Florida remains the number one long-haul choice for families, according to Abta.
Eurostar said more than 137,000 people are expected to travel with them over the weekend, with more than 71,000 Britons heading to Europe for the holidays.
A spokeswoman said this weekend will be busier than the same weekend last year.
There was major congestion on the UK's roads this afternoon as families headed off for their summer holidays.
Jams peaked at 5.25pm when there were 3,378 separate congestion hotspots across the country, according to traffic experts at TomTom.
In total, there were 2,935 miles of tailbacks, causing 314 hours of delays.
The average jam length in the Friday evening rush hour across the UK at this time of year is 493 miles - so congestion was nearly six times worse than usual.
The worst affected road was the M25 motorway in Surrey towards Hertfordshire, TomTom's data found.
Traffic was queuing back for 44 miles causing delays of over two hours between the A217 (J8) and the M1 (J21).
Heavy rain caused disruption on the London Underground, with services between Edgware Road and Hammersmith on the Hammersmith and City line cancelled due to flooding.
West Ham station was closed and trains were not stopping at Stepney Green due to water on the platform. Normal service has now resumed at both east London stations.