Travel: Heading to Britain? Be prepared for surprises

Passengers should be prepared for long delays, lines and missing baggages

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Photo: AP
Photo: AP

Published: Mon 4 Jul 2022, 11:08 AM

Last updated: Mon 4 Jul 2022, 11:09 AM

As the pent-up demand for travel and tourism is released after two years of stalled holidays due to the Covid-19 pandemic, visitors to Britain in the coming weeks and months need to be prepared for surprises, such as last-minute flights cancellations, long delays to clear securityn and missing baggage.

There have been chaotic scenes at Heathrow and other airports due to flight cancellations in recent days, but the key message from the transport sector is this: it will be business as usual for the vast majority of travellers, but travellers need to keep checking with airlines before travel and to be prepared for last-minute changes.

There have been occasions when passengers have waited in six-hour queues at airports or spent the night on a cold terminal floor, with children in tears, baggage piling up and long-awaited first post-Covid holidays denied. Social media and mainstream news media have been awash with accounts of domestic and international travellers upset with the cancellations and other problems. Since airports in Britain are closely linked with those in Europe, delays and cancellations affect services across the continent.

Last week, passengers complained of queues and “total chaos” at Heathrow after the airport asked airlines to remove 30 flights from Thursday’s schedule. The UK’s largest airport asked airlines to cut the flights because it was expecting more passenger numbers than it can currently cope with. Some passengers did not know that their flights were cancelled until they arrived at the airport, as Heathrow said the cancellations were necessary for safety. There are measures in place to help those affected by the cancellations, but there have been several instances of flights cancellations and long delays at airport security at Heathrow and other airports in recent weeks and months.

Many visitors were also affected by the rail workers strike in June, which led to most of the services stopped or delayed. There have been flight cancellations also because of pilots not reporting for work after being infected by new variants of Covid-19, while airlines struggle to maintain levels of standby reserve crews. The tourism and aviation sectors are particularly keen that issues are resolved before the busy summer holiday season, but senior officials at Manchester airport and elsewhere believe passengers are unlikely to receive services similar to those prevailing in 2019, before the pandemic. There are already warnings that holidays all over Europe would be affected by the crisis at various levels and locations.

A Heathrow spokesman said: “We will work with airlines to get affected passengers rebooked onto other flights outside of the peak so that as many as possible can get away, and we apologise for the impact this has on travel plans”.

“We are working hard to ensure everyone has a smooth journey through Heathrow this summer, and the most important thing is to make sure that all service providers at the airport have enough resources to meet demand,” he added.

Besides the effect of the pandemic that led to reduced staff numbers, the long vetting and other procedures needed before new staff can be deployed at the thousands of vacancies at Heathrow and elsewhere has also hampered resolution. The clearances are now being given in less time than earlier to speed up new staff taking up positions at airports, particularly at security gates.

The staff shortage is also due to Brexit, which prevents recruitment of European workers easily.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps said: “People havemade huge sacrifices during the pandemic and deserve their flights to run on time, without complications and without being cancelled last minute. While this is a challenging time for the sector, it is not acceptable for the current disruption to continue as we head into the summer peak”.

New regulations laid before Parliament will allow a one-off “amnesty” on airport slots rules, enabling airlines to plan ahead and deliver a realistic summer schedule that minimises disruption at the airports.

This is being provided as an exceptional measure while industry makes progress in recruiting necessary staff, officials said. A bit like parking spaces for planes, the slots are used to manage capacity at the busiest airports. A slot gives permission to use the full range of airport infrastructure (runway, terminal and gates, for instance) necessary to operate an air service at an airport on a specific date and time.

Highly valuable commercial assets, airlines must use the slots a certain amount of times each season in order to keep them. However, many parts of the sector have been unable to recruit enough staff in time to fly the number of flights they have planned for, leading to flights being cancelled at short notice.

Under the new rules, the government will now give airlines a short window to hand back slots for the rest of the summer season that they are not confident they will be able to operate. This will help passengers find alternative arrangements ahead of time, rather than face the kind of last-minute cancellations seen over the Easter and half-term holidays.

Aviation Minister Robert Courts said: “This is a hugely challenging time for our recovering aviation industry, but we cannot have a situation where passengers arrive at the airport just to have their flight cancelled or face long delays”.

Richard Moriarty, Chief Executive of the Civil Aviation Authority, added: “Providing passengers with certainty this summer is vital and this intervention will help to relieve the pressures we see being experienced by the aviation industry and its customers. Short-term measures are welcomed, but a continued focus on the unplanned and inevitable operational challenges is crucial for consumer confidence this summer”.


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