The strongest winds over the Atlantic Ocean in more than 10 years have forced dozens of Continental Airlines flights from Europe to the eastern U.S. to make unscheduled refuelling stops in Canada and elsewhere, a report says.

The fuel stops at airports such as Gander, N.L., and Halifax are partly the result of a decision by parent United Airlines to use smaller jets on the overseas flights. The strategy works in light winds and saves money on fuel and crew costs, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.

Using Boeing 757s on flights that approach their 7,400-kilometre range, the airline doesn't leave much room for error in estimating fuel when the twin-engine planes are flying into strong headwinds, the paper says. The result has been delays for passengers and added operating costs.

"Headwinds returning from Europe are more extreme than we have seen in 10 years," the Journal quotes a United Airlines spokeswoman as saying. December headwinds averaged 56 km/h, according to United's records. Last month, however, prevailing westerly winds averaged 87 km/h, and, on the worst 15 days of the month, 111 km/h.

Unplanned visits to Gander

As a result, flights to east coast destinations have been forced to stop for fuel at places such as Gander, Goose Bay, N.L.,  Iceland, Ireland, Albany, N.Y., and New Windsor, N.Y., north of Manhattan.

For airports such as Goose Bay and Gander, which have seen fewer landings in recent years because of commercial airliners' longer ranges, these unexpected refuelling stops can bring in tens of thousands of dollars in landing fees and other revenue a month, the Journal reported.

While United's Continental unit has been the worst affected, other airlines have reported similar difficulties.

US Airways, which flies 757s to Philadelphia from some European cities, said that in December it diverted four of 112 transtlantic flights due to strong headwinds. Three Amsterdam-Philadelphia flights and a flight from Brussels to Philadelphia refuelled in Bangor, Maine, the Journal reported. Two more repeated the pattern in January.

American Airlines, which flies six European routes with 757s, said it has had "a few" unplanned fuel stops on westbound flights, but it's "not a daily occurrence," the paper said.

The Continental-served European cities involved include Stockholm, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Paris, Stuttgart, and Barcelona. U.S. destinations involved were Washington's Dulles Airport and the airline's hub at Newark, N.J.