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Ulster's homecoming

TENS of thousands of people were struggling through gales and airport chaos today to complete Northern Ireland's biggest ever homecoming.

TENS of thousands of people were struggling through gales and airport chaos today to complete Northern Ireland's biggest ever homecoming.

Families across the province were gearing up for the twin treats of Christmas 1999 and the once-in-a-lifetime Millennium celebrations.

But hundreds of passengers were stranded in London this morning after a Jumbo jet freight plane crash sparked long delays at Stansted airport.

Flights to Belfast and Londonderry were affected by the disaster.

And thousands of Ulster folk travelling home via Dublin were also hit by the chaos.

On the seas, stormy weather forced ferry companies to review schedules amid warnings gales and floods will strike Northern Ireland.

Hundreds of Ulster people coming home for Christmas had their travel plans thrown into chaos as a result of the Stansted tragedy.

Four crew members were killed in the Korean Air 747 crash at Stansted and the airport runway remained closed this morning.

Today should have been the busiest day of the year at Stansted with 40,000 travellers due to pass through - many bound for Belfast and Dublin.

But after the tragedy, flight schedules were thrown into disarray and airlines faced an operational nightmare attempting to accommodate Christmas travellers on flights from other airports.

Severe disruption is expected to continue throughout today with a backlog of flights to Stansted also building up.

When the accident happened at around 7pm yesterday, a flight from Belfast City Airport to Stansted was in the air. It was immediately diverted to Birmingham and passengers collected by coach.

Meanwhile around 91 Belfast-bound passengers were stranded at Stansted last night after the accident forced cancellation of their 8.05pm Jersey European flight. Those passengers who had managed to get through traffic chaos around Stansted were put up in hotels for the night by the airline.

The disruption continued today. Jersey European's first flight out of Belfast to Stansted was diverted to Birmingham, and passengers from last night's cancelled flight were due to board an extra flight from Birmingham at 11.30am.

Passengers for today's 8.45am Stansted to City Airport flight were being coached to Southend where a plane charted from another company was waiting for them.

A spokesman for Jersey European said: "This has been a terrible tragedy.

"As an airline we are trying to accommodate passengers. Once the airport reopens, priority will be giving to leaving flights, but we are expecting there will be delays for the rest of the day."

Three Ryanair flights due to carry almost 400 people to Dublin and Cork were stranded at Stansted last night and further flights were delayed today.

Forecasters warned the province to brace itself for severe flooding in many areas, particularly in the north west, as the current spell of severe weather is set to stay over the festive period.

Ferry chiefs today also urged travellers to contact their local operators to get an update on delays and cancellations.

Seacat has changed its timetable over the next few days due to the adverse conditions in the Irish Sea. Passengers should contact 08705 523523 for future details.

A spokesman for the PA weather centre said: "It is going to get pretty terrible later today with gales and heavy rain and this could result in some flooding problems.

"It will stay very unsettled over the next few days with heavy rain at intervals with some sunshine".