Thomas Cook's 6,000 Northern Ireland travellers waiting to fly home
Up to 6,000 Thomas Cook passengers will have to be repatriated within the next fortnight, according to Belfast International Airport (BIA).
The first relieved holidaymakers touched down at Aldergrove at around 8.30pm last night after the travel giant went into administration yesterday.
A BIA spokeswoman last night said they were working closely with the UK Civil Aviation Authority, who have a team onsite, to facilitate the huge logistical operation.
Thomas Cook had one 220-seater aircraft based at the Aldergrove airport, which operated two flights a day during peak times, serving around 100,000 passengers per year.
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Last night the spokeswoman said BIA was "deeply sorry" for the Thomas Cook staff directly impacted by this news and she apologised for the disruption to holidaymakers.
"It is with regret that we have been notified that Thomas Cook Group has ceased trading with immediate effect," she said.
"Thomas Cook were one of the longest serving, and most valued, customers at Belfast International Airport. We very much regret the disruption and inconvenience this will cause those holidaymakers already in resort and for all those who are due to travel imminently.
"We are deeply sorry to all those Thomas Cook staff, our colleagues, who are directly impacted by this news and we send our best wishes to them."
She added: "In terms of the immediate impact we estimate around 5,000 to 6,000 passengers having to be repatriated back to Belfast within the next two weeks."
Some 150,000 tourists are being brought back to the UK over the next two weeks in a Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) flight programme costing £100m, which will be paid by Atol and the government.
The first rescue flight touched down at Gatwick from Split, Croatia, shortly before midday.
Hours later, the first flight to Northern Ireland touched down from Turkey.
John Devlin (56) from Belfast had been on a family holiday with a group of 25 and said the "pandemonium" caused by the Thomas Cook closure meant only nine of his group have been able to get home.
"It's absolutely brilliant to get home. I didn't even think I'd get on the flight in the first place," he said. "It was an absolute nightmare over there with kids being put off flights, fathers being taken away from their families, families split up. It's ridiculous, we still have family trying to get back through London.
"Another family member is travelling via Germany and others won't get home till Friday. It's ridiculous."
Eileen Roden, aged in her 60s, made the flight home but said her son has now lost his job with Thomas Cook. "My journey hasn't been as bad as I don't have children with me but it has been very hard for the families flying tonight," she said.
"My son booked the holiday for me and he's the manager for Thomas Cook, so he's lost his job now and that's what is much more upsetting for me."
Sylvia Boyd (61) from Coleraine said she was shocked at the sudden collapse of the travel agent. "We were able to enjoy our holiday and made it home safely. Two or three days ago we had an idea but didn't know for sure until we looked it up this morning. We're home safe," she said.
Thomas Cook had operated at Aldergrove in one form or another since the 1980s, offering eight routes from Belfast to a range of destinations throughout the year.
Routes included Turkey and the Canary Islands as well as Lapland at Christmas.
Meanwhile, a local travel firm boss, who's worked in the industry for 25 years, said she's never witnessed "anything as major as this".
Sharon Thompson from Thompson Travel International in Portadown said up to 150 of their customers had been directly affected by the collapse of Thomas Cook. She said consultants at her travel agency spent hours contacting all their customers by phone and email yesterday as repatriation details filtered through.
"Thomas Cook played a big part in the Northern Ireland travel industry from Belfast International Airport and it's an absolute tragedy and a loss to Northern Ireland," she said.
Boris Johnson yesterday questioned whether directors should pay themselves "large sums of money" as their businesses go "down the tubes" following the demise of Thomas Cook.
The Prime Minister, who earlier defended the government's decision not to bail out the travel company, hinted at forcing companies to be properly insured against collapse.
Speaking to reporters in New York, Mr Johnson said: "I think the questions we've got to ask ourselves now: how can this thing be stopped from happening in the future?
"How can we make sure that tour operators take proper precautions with their business models where you don't end up with a situation where the taxpayer, the state, is having to step in and bring people home?
"I have questions for one about whether it's right that the directors, or whoever, the board, should pay themselves large sums when businesses can go down the tubes like that."
Richard Moriarty, chief executive of the CAA, said the government had asked his organisation to launch "the UK's largest ever peacetime repatriation".
Most of the flights are from European airports, but customers are also being brought home from Thomas Cook's long-haul destinations such as those in the US, the Caribbean and Cuba.
Thomas Cook customers are advised to visit the CAA's dedicated website, , for more information about what they should do next.