It’s official: the chaos of last-minute flight cancellations seen in recent months has reached such a fever pitch that the Department for Transport (DfT) and Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) have stepped in, warning airlines to curb summer schedules now to avoid misery later.
It follows numerous stories of passengers turning up to the airport - or even having boarded the plane - only to be told that their flight had been axed, wrecking thousands of travellers’ holiday plans.
In a joint letter to airlines, the DfT and CAA said: “Cancellations at the earliest possibility to deliver a more robust schedule are better for consumers than late-notice on-the-day cancellations.”
Richard Moriarty, chief executive of the CAA, and Rannia Leontaridi, director-general for aviation at the DfT, wrote: “The outcomes for too many consumers recently have been unacceptable. It is imperative that we see an improvement to the resilience in the system, planning and scheduling to reflect the available capacity ahead of the summer period.
“Our expectation is that you and all those involved in delivering aviation services will take all possible steps to prepare for and manage passenger demand that helps to avoid the unacceptable scenes we have recently witnessed.”
Meanwhile, Gatwick announced it was putting a cap on the number of daily operations in July and August from a maximum of 900 departures and arrivals to 825 and 850 respectively.
Passengers on easyJet will bear the brunt of the cancelled flights, with British Airways, Wizz Air, Tui, Norwegian and Ryanair also expected to ground departures.
But how will you know if your flight has been cut and what are your rights if it doesn’t go ahead? Here’s what we know so far.
Why have airlines been cancelling flights?
A “perfect storm” has hit several airlines particularly hard. During the pandemic, carriers and airports alike laid off swathes of staff while travel bans made many flights impossible. The sudden widespread dropping of restrictions a few months ago saw a sudden surge in demand from travellers, but the aviation industry struggled to cope due to staff shortages. This was compounded by increased employee illness rates due to Covid.
In a statement in which it announced further flight cancellations this summer, easyJet gave the following explanations: “Given the unprecedented ramp up, the aviation industry across Europe is experiencing operational issues with root causes similar to the post-Covid supply chain issues being seen in many other parts of the economy.
“The challenges include air traffic control delays and staff shortages in ground handling and at airports, resulting in increased aircraft turnaround times and delayed departures which have a knock-on effect resulting in flight cancellations.
“A very tight labour market for the whole ecosystem including crew, compounded by increased ID check times, has reduced planned resilience further.
“This is reflected in the flight caps announced recently at two of our biggest airports, London Gatwick and Amsterdam.”
Some in the travel industry have argued that Brexit has excerbated the issue. Paul Charles, chief executive of The PC Agency and a travel industry advocate, said: “We calculate that some 30 per cent of jobs in the UK aviation sector were filled by EU citizens before the pandemic – which was before the Brexit withdrawal agreement took effect at the start of 2021.
“The industry now needs to attract those EU workers back but the government won’t help the sector and continues to put up hurdles to hiring.”
Gemma Antrobus, Specialist Travel Agents’ chair of the Association of Independent Tour Operators, told Wake Up to Money on BBC 5 Live: “Brexit happened right in the middle of an international travel ban for our industry, at the time that we exactly left the EU.
“It then proceeded with five-and-a-half months of it being illegal to travel.
“So we never really saw that impact straight away. But losing so many skilled workers … has meant a contributing factor to the situation we find ourselves in.”
London mayor Sadiq Khan added his voice to the call for the government to make it easier to attract back EU aviation workers: “This is self-inflicted from the government. It isn’t about Covid. This is about Brexit plus Covid,” he said.
Which are the worst offenders?
In terms of last-minute cancellations, easyJet has been hardest hit. Britain’s biggest budget airline is currently cancelling around 60 flights per day, the majority of them to and from London Gatwick airport.
While easyJet has introduced some longer-term cancellations, many flights are grounded at a day’s notice or less.
Wizz Air has also been forced to make a number of on-the-day cancellations. Tui cancelled 200 flights from Manchester between the end of May and the end of June.
While British Airways has cancelled 16,500 over the summer, it did this preemptively to reduce the pressure on tight resources, with affected customers notified weeks in advance.
Gatwick airport itself has preemptively put a daily cap on flights during the peak summer months to avoid the chaos of further on-the-day cancellations.
On the busiest days, airlines will be told to cancel up to 50 flights – requiring thousands of passengers already booked on them to find alternative departures.
How will you know if your flight has been cancelled?
Passengers should be notifed using the details they booked with, for example by email and/or text. Within this correspondence, carriers should make it clear to customers what their rebooking and refund options are (see below).
Travellers can also log into their airline’s “manage my booking section” online or via an app to check services are going ahead.
Airlines will be keen to make any advance, preemptive cancellations at least two weeks ahead of flights’ departure dates in order to avoid paying compensation. However, some last-minute cancellations may still hit travellers this summer; but unless you hear otherwise, assume your flight is taking off as planned.
What are your rights if your flight has been cancelled?
Passenger rights are very clear, and the DfT and CAA laid them out again in the open letter.
If your flight is cancelled, the airline must either find another way to get you to your destination - even if on a rival carrier - or issue you a refund. The choice is yours.
“If airlines cannot re-route passengers on their own services or partner airlines on the same day they should identify re-routing options on alternative airlines,” reads the letter.
“It is also important that where passengers are delayed they receive suitable subsistence and, if they need to stay overnight, suitable accommodation promptly.
“If there is evidence that an airline is systematically letting consumers down when it comes to those rights, the CAA will not hesitate to escalate matters with its enforcement role.”
It also emphasised that airlines must inform passengers of their consumer rights in relation to refund and compensation routes if applicable, plus ensure refunds and compensation are paid in good time.
If the airline cancels within two weeks of the flight’s scheduled departure date, cash compensation is due – unless the airline can demonstrate “extraordinary circumstances” were responsible for the grounding of the flight.
The lowest rate is £220 for flights of under 1,500km in distance; with £350 payable for flights between 1,500km and 3,500km and £520 for longer sectors such as to and from Egypt.