On 9 June 2022, the House of Lords is due to debate the following question for short debate:

Lord Davies of Brixton (Labour) to ask Her Majesty’s Government what action it proposes to alleviate the problems, including queues, cancellations and delays, being experienced by UK travellers at airports and ferry ports.

1. Disruption at UK airports

Passengers at UK airports have faced significant disruption recently. Some airline operators have issued mass cancellations, including Easyjet, which announced on 28 May 2022 that it would cancel more than 200 flights. The airline said around 24 flights from Gatwick airport would be cancelled each day between 28 May 2022 and 6 June 2022. Several other airlines have also cancelled a large number of flights. British Airways (BA) cancelled 120 short haul flights to and from London Heathrow airport on 3 June 2020. BA said that the flight cancellations were pre-planned and passengers had been given advance notice. Tui has also announced that nearly 400 flights would be cancelled from 31 May 2022 until the end of June 2022.

In addition to cancellations, passengers have experienced long delays at several UK airports. For instance, Manchester airport issued an apology to travellers for airport delays on 29 May 2022, noting that delays at check-in and baggage reclaim resulted from “issues” facing several airlines. Euronews reported long queues at security and passport control in Heathrow airport on 24 May 2022.

The latest disruption followed previous delays and cancellations at UK airports over the Easter bank holiday in April 2022. This earlier disruption was attributed to Covid-related staff absences, amongst other things.

1.1 Causes of the airport disruption

Several factors are believed to have caused the airport disruption, including a shortage of airline industry staff.

Some stakeholders, such as the airline trade body the International Air Transport Association (IATA), blamed recent disruption on the airline recruitment process. Approval times for security clearance of new employees had more than tripled. Director General of the IATA Willie Walsh said security clearance—which is needed before new employees can start training—could previously be obtained within three to four weeks, but was now taking as long as three months at some airports. He said this delay meant that potential staff were seeking out other jobs.

Some airlines have also reported difficulties in recruiting staff. Airlines such as BA were described by the Financial Times as struggling to hire staff quickly enough to meet the renewed demand for travel after cutting nearly 10,000 jobs during the pandemic. BA is said to have brought in aircraft and crew from other airline operators, such as Iberia and Finnair, to try to stabilise its schedules over the summer. Airline operators, airports and travel companies have also attributed the disruption to IT glitches, operational problems, supply chain issues and runway maintenance.

The UK government has blamed airlines and operators for the disruption. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said airlines and operators had “seriously oversold flights and holidays” relative to their capacity.

The transport secretary met with the aviation industry on 1 June 2022 to discuss the disruption seen across UK airports. Grant Shapps reportedly shared his concerns that airline passengers were being “unfairly sold tickets for holidays that they cannot go on”. The minister said he would continue to discuss options with the industry for introducing automatic refunds for passengers, amongst other things. The government said it would also form a working group with the aviation industry ahead of the summer holidays to work through the issues.

In contrast, the Labour party has said the government is partly to blame as it should have provided more support to the industry. The shadow treasury minister, James Murray, accused the government of not giving the right level of support to the sector:

We were warning about this, trade unions were warning about this, employee representatives were saying throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, ‘you need a sector-specific package to support the aviation sector’, and now we’re seeing what’s happened because the government hasn’t prepared for what would obviously come next.

The shadow transport secretary, Louise Haigh, has called on the government to take responsibility for tackling the disruption. The shadow minister said that the government should address the backlog in security checks for new staff, and work with the travel industry to address “chronic low pay”.

Unions have blamed both airline operators and the government. The deputy general secretary of the Prospect union, Garry Graham, accused government and aviation employers of ignoring the warnings about staff shortages. Prospect represents air traffic control staff, amongst others. The general secretary of Unite, Sharon Graham, said the recent disruption stemmed from “corporate greed” of airline operators during the pandemic:

[…] when airline operators and others in aviation slashed jobs to boost corporate profits, we warned this corporate greed would cause chaos in the industry. The aftermath of mass sackings is now chronic staff shortages across the board. Aviation chiefs need to come clean with the public. This is a crisis of their making.

Rory Boland, the editor of Which? Travel, said the government and regulators should take responsibility for “creating a situation where airlines feel empowered to treat passengers poorly”. He said the “blame game” over staff shortages and flight cancellations was not helping passengers. Which? has called on the government to work with airlines and airports to help them bring an end to the disruption.

2. Disruption at Dover ferry port

Delays and disruption have also been seen at the ferry port in Dover. Kent Online reported congestion at Dover on 29 May 2022, with routes into the port said to be “gridlocked”. It was reported that this had been caused by a limited number of French border control booths being open. On 30 May 2022, the BBC cited P&O Ferries as saying the delays were “out of their control” because border controls were operated by French border police.

The Port of Dover issued half-term travel information to travellers in anticipation of a “very busy week” during the school half-term break and platinum jubilee bank holiday.

This recent disruption followed earlier delays on English Channel crossings during March and April 2022. Constraints on the operation of P&O ferries were believed to have contributed to the earlier delays. This followed P&O’s announcement on 17 March 2022 that it was dismissing 800 UK-based staff and was replacing them with lower-paid agency workers.

Further constraints were placed on ferry capacity at Dover when two P&O ships were barred from sailing as a result of failed safety inspections. This resulted in “major delays” around the Dover port between March and April 2022 that saw several roads in the area come to a standstill.

3. Legal rights of passengers

3.1 Cancelled flights

Passengers whose flights have been cancelled have certain legal entitlements.

The UK’s aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority, sets out what passengers are legally entitled to if their flight is cancelled. This includes airlines providing passengers with “care and assistance”, including: food and drink vouchers; accommodation if a person is re-routed from the next day onwards; and transport to and from the accommodation.

Passengers may also be able to claim compensation in certain circumstances if they received less than 14 days’ notice of the cancellation. Compensation levels vary depending on the length of the cancelled flight and duration of the disruption. Passengers whose flights are cancelled due to disruptions such as extreme weather or industrial action will not be eligible for compensation.

3.2 Delayed or cancelled ferries

Passengers of ferries departing the UK also have certain rights if their service is cancelled or delayed.

The Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) set out what ferry passengers are entitled to when services are disrupted. For example, where a ferry is cancelled or delayed for more than 90 minutes beyond its departure time, passengers should be provided with free refreshments “if available or [if they] can be reasonably supplied”. Passengers should also be offered a choice of either an alternative travel route at the earliest opportunity and at no additional cost, or a refund of the ticket price within seven days. ABTA guidance stated that passengers were also entitled to accommodation and compensation in certain circumstances.

4. Read more

Cover image by cedarjet201 from Pixabay.