With the Easter holidays underway, passengers at UK airports have faced severe disruption to their plans, with long delays and hundreds of canceled flights. Why did this happen and what can be done?
What caused the cancellations?
In short, Covid-19. The relatively sudden lifting of pandemic restrictions in the UK has led to a surge in travel demand, after two years when coronavirus testing and the ‘traffic light’ regime had made holidays either impossible or an expensive risk. This has been accompanied by a huge rise in Covid cases across the UK, to which aviation personnel are obviously not immune.
Where’s the worst?
Of the airlines, easyJet appears to be suffering the most, with Covid having infected large numbers of crew at its Gatwick base in particular. British Airways has only canceled a few flights due to illness.
Sickness rates have contributed to problems at some airports – but airports like Manchester are mainly struggling to recruit staff quickly enough to meet demand for the busiest Easter getaway since 2019.
What happened in Manchester?
Passengers in Manchester have already faced hours of queuing for check-in, security and baggage claim even before Easter, and the situation does not look likely to be resolved soon. Like most airports, airlines and aviation suppliers (such as baggage handlers or security companies), staff in Manchester have been largely laid off and hundreds have been made redundant during the pandemic, when travel of approval have been practically interrupted for long periods. But Manchester appears to have been less prepared than airports like Gatwick, which soft-reopened its second terminal last week.
Is it the same everywhere?
Heathrow also says it will need 1,000 extra staff for the summer. Recruitment is less easy than airports might have hoped: workers are in demand in other sectors, with strong incentives for trainee drivers, for example. Airports must not only recruit the right staff, but also subject them to rigorous security screening procedures. This Home Office process has also experienced delays, according to the airports.
Unions are more direct. Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: ‘We have repeatedly warned the aviation sector not to use Covid cover to cut jobs and pay… Now the sector is suffering a disability chronic in attracting new employees because workers are not attracted to an industry where wages are low and conditions are poor.
While the UK has lifted most Covid restrictions, not all countries have, which means a few more checks.
Is everything Covid?
There are perennial problems that have been thrown into the mix: faulty electronic gates causing border queues at Heathrow, and British Airways has recently been hit with a recurrence of its IT glitches, problems that have caused many cancellations.
What should I do if my flight is canceled or delayed? Am I entitled to a refund?
When a flight is canceled or delayed for more than three hours, passengers are currently entitled to compensation of £220 if the distance affected is 1,500km or less (e.g. domestic flights), up to £520 for certain long-haul journeys, unless the cause is “extraordinary circumstances”. This is not clearly defined, but could include things like bad weather and acts of terrorism. Passengers delayed for less than three hours are not entitled to any compensation.
It is believed that in the past, something like staff illness was not described by an airline as an extraordinary circumstance. But it remains to be seen whether airlines will claim that the high levels of Covid infections among staff put this in a different league from previous cases.
Rory Boland, editor of consumer organization Which?, said it would still be a popular holiday period, so it was the airlines’ responsibility to ensure they have the capacity to carry out all the flights they schedule.
He added: “Most passengers will simply want to get to where they need to be despite this disruption, so airlines must comply with their legal obligations and inform passengers of their right to be re-routed to other carriers or to request reimbursement.
“Passengers affected will be entitled to compensation of at least £220 in these circumstances to cover out-of-pocket costs, and airlines must provide refreshments and accommodation as needed while their customers await their new flight.”