What is behind the disruption at UK airports?

With the Easter break now under way, passengers at UK airports have been facing severe disruption to their plans, with long delays and hundreds of flights cancelled. Why has this been happening and what can be done?

What has caused the cancellations?

In brief, Covid-19. The relatively sudden lifting of UK pandemic restrictions has resulted in soaring demand for travel, after two years when the coronavirus testing and “traffic light” regime had made holidays either impossible or an expensive risk. This has been accompanied by a huge increase in Covid cases across the UK, to which aviation staff are obviously not immune.

Where is it worst?

Out of the airlines, easyJet seems to be suffering most, with Covid having infected large numbers of crew at its Gatwick base in particular. British Airways has only cancelled a few flights because of sickness.

Sickness rates have contributed to problems for some airports – but airports such as Manchester are mainly struggling to recruit staff quickly enough to meet demand for the busiest Easter getaway since 2019.

An easyJet plane takes off from London Gatwick bound for Glasgow on 22 March 2022.
EasyJet has been affected by staff absences because of Covid-19. Photograph: Matt Alexander/PA

What has happened at Manchester?

Passengers at Manchester already faced hours of queues for check-in, security and baggage reclaim even before Easter, and the situation looks unlikely to be resolved soon. In common with most airports, airlines and aviation suppliers (such as baggage handlers or security firms), Manchester’s staff were largely furloughed, and hundreds were laid off during the pandemic, when leisure travel was all but stopped for long periods. But Manchester appears to have been less prepared than airports such as Gatwick, which reopened its second terminal smoothly last week.

Is it the same everywhere?

Heathrow, too, says it will need another 1,000 staff for summer. Recruitment is less easy than airports may have hoped: workers are in demand across other sectors, with big incentives for trainee drivers, for example. Airports not only need to recruit the right staff but put them through rigorous vetting procedures for security. This Home Office process has also faced some delays, airports claim.

Unions are blunter. Unite’s general secretary, Sharon Graham, said: “We warned the aviation sector repeatedly not to use the cover of Covid to slash jobs and pay … Now the sector is suffering from a chronic inability to attract new staff because workers are not attracted to an industry where pay is poor and conditions are lousy.”

While the UK has lifted most Covid restrictions, not all countries have, meaning some additional checks.

People queue to check in at Heathrow Terminal 5 on Monday 4 April.
People queue to check in at Heathrow Terminal 5. Photograph: Steve Parsons/PA

Is it all Covid?

There are perennial problems that have been thrown into the mix: malfunctioning e-gates causing queues at the border at Heathrow, and British Airways has recently been hit by a recurrence of its IT issues, glitches that caused numerous cancellations.

What do I do if my flight is cancelled or delayed? Am I entitled to a refund?

When a flight is cancelled or delayed by more than three hours, passengers are currently entitled to compensation of £220 if the distance involved is 1,500km or less (for example, domestic flights), rising to £520 for some long-haul journeys, unless the cause was “extraordinary circumstances”. This is not clearly defined but could include things such as bad weather and acts of terrorism. Passengers delayed by less than three hours are not entitled to any compensation.

It is thought that typically in the past, something such as staff illness would not be described by an airline as an extraordinary circumstance. But it remains to be seen whether airlines will claim that high levels of Covid infections among staff put this in a different league to previous cases.

Rory Boland, the travel editor for the consumer organisation Which?, said this was always likely to be a popular holiday time, so there was a responsibility on airlines to ensure they have the capacity to run all of the flights they schedule.

He added: “Most passengers will just want to get where they need to be despite this disruption, so airlines must meet their legal obligations and inform passengers of their right to be rerouted with other carriers or claim a refund.

“Affected passengers will be entitled to at least £220 compensation in these circumstances to cover out-of-pocket costs, and airlines should provide refreshments and accommodation as required while their customers await their new flight.”