Flight VY6209 was due to take off for the Italian city of Florence at 8.20pm on Monday.
But the Airbus A319 – which can carry up to 144 passengers – left nearly two hours late with no-one on board for the 734-mile flight.
The environmental impact of this is insane
Nisha Gupta, 32, from Windsor, Berkshire, was booked on the flight with her husband Ash.
She told the PA news agency they were forced to queue for more than four hours to check in luggage, but when they arrived at the departure gate they were informed no passengers could board the plane due to a staff shortage.
She said: “Eventually we were told by staff that the pilots made a decision to fly the plane back empty without a single passenger onboard due to Florence airspace closing.
“The environmental impact of this is insane and a decision was clearly made to prioritise cost implications over customer experience and environmental impact.
“Throughout this entire experience, there was a maximum of three staff members dealing with all Vueling flights that day.
“We got to the airport at 3pm and did not leave until 2am after having to wait around to give details to the one staff member dealing with all cancelled flights, taking details and trying to book people into hotels.
“No food or drinks were provided at all. Neither were any meal vouchers as per customer rights in the instance of a delay.”
The airline’s passengers at Gatwick continued to face severe difficulties.
One person posted a photograph showing a large crowd of people waiting to check-in, with the caption: “Vueling you need to get a grip of this absolute chaos at Gatwick.
“One member of staff to handle this many people is completely unacceptable. Do you understand the impact this has on people?”
The airline was approached for a comment.