DfT unveils plan to tackle airport summer disruption as EasyJet, Heathrow, British Airways and Air Canada cancel flights
Airports must run realistic summer schedules and need to compensate passengers quickly when things go wrong if the aviation industry is to avoid disrupting millions of people's summer plans, says a new report.
Just hours after Heathrow Airport ordered the cancellation of more than 30 flights this morning because it couldn't handle them, ministers have released details of a 22-point plan drawn up to tackle the ongoing disruption at airports before schools in England break for summer and hundreds of thousands more people attempt trips abroad.
Travellers have faced significant disruption at airports since Covid-19 restrictions were fully eased around 100 days ago - with long queues at security, cancelled flights and missing luggage blighting people's long-awaited and rescheduled holidays as firms struggle to recruit enough staff to meet pent-up demand after the pandemic.
The Department for Transport (DfT) - which is calling on the sector to avoid a repeat of the Easter and half-term disruption experienced at airports and major ports - has drawn up a long list of measures and targets it believes will support the travel industry to get people to where they need to be across July and August.
Reviews of summer timetables
EasyJet is among carriers trimming their summer timetables as the firm doesn't have the resources it needs to deliver all the flights it had planned to run. Its schedule is expected to be reduced by around 10%, says travel expert Simon Calder, which means large numbers of passengers with July and August bookings have been told - or soon will be - that their plans are changing.
British Airways and Air Canada have also confirmed in recent days they are making more changes to summer schedules to avoid last-minute unplanned changes.
The Government, together with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), says it now expects all airlines to be reviewing summer timetables to make sure the number of flights they plan to run are both realistic and manageable with the staff numbers they have and any changes to customers' trips are made now.
In an attempt to avoid a flurry of cancellations at the last minute - like those seen at Heathrow on Thursday morning (June 30) - a slot amnesty has also been launched, enabling airlines to hand back sections of the day where they no longer think they can run flights out of terminals because of staff shortages.
A bit like parking spaces for planes, slots are used to manage capacity at the busiest airports. A slot gives permission to use the full range of airport infrastructure, including the runway, terminal and gates on a specific date and time.
While ordinarily airlines must use a certain number of slots each season to keep them, in an attempt to avoid last-minute disruption for passengers in July and August, carriers have been told there is now a one-off amnesty enabling them to review flights, decide what's manageable, rearrange passengers affected and hand back the sections of their timetable they can't run without further penalties.
After months of disruption and confusion over the rights of passengers who have seen their flights disrupted, a new Aviation Passenger Charter is to be released that will help to hold airlines to account, according to the action plan.
Expected to arrive "within the coming weeks", it aims to provide a clear one-stop guide for passengers informing them of their rights, responsibilities and what they can expect of the aviation industry when flying this summer or if they're faced with a sudden cancellation.
In an attempt to speed up processing times at airports and reduce queues and delays for people waiting to take off, travellers are also going to be given more information about the things they need to know ahead of setting off from the UK.
Rules on liquids, carry-on luggage and airport arrival times are expected to be included in the new campaign that will attempt to get across to people the things they can do to help make their time at the airport as smooth as possible both for themselves and fellow passengers.
Social media is awash with stories from travellers who have not had their trips or flights rearranged when airlines have cancelled them at the very last minute.
Writing in The Independent two days ago, travel expert Simon Calder says he too doesn't believe travellers are always offered the best alternatives when their bookings are scrapped at the 11th hour.
Last month the CAA told airlines that passengers whose flights are cancelled just prior to departure should be able to travel on the same day if an alternative seat is available - even if this means with an alternative or rival company. Passengers who are told of cancellations at least 14 days before they are due to travel are not entitled to compensation.
But in further attempts to make the rules crystal clear before the summer rush, the DfT says letters have now been sent to all airlines to remind them of their legal responsibilities in providing information, care and help, refunds and compensation to their customers.
More help for less mobile passengers
Heathrow Airport came under fire in May when journalist Frank Gardner, who is disabled, was left waiting on an empty plane. The BBC reporter was told there were 'no staff' to help remove his wheelchair and he says he was forced to wait long after all his fellow passengers had got off to be helped from the flight.
Among the 1,000-plus replies to his tweet were stories from other disabled passengers who shared their own experiences of being left stranded as a result of ongoing staff shortages in the UK.
To ensure disabled and less mobile passengers get all the help they need this summer, the CAA is now asking airports to set out their plans, showing the extra measures they've got in place to improve the amount of help they can provide to those passengers who need further assistance when getting on and off planes and moving through terminals.
With airports and travel firms heading for their busiest period in years, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said that there would soon be "no excuse for widespread disruption".
He explained: "Holidaymakers deserve certainty ahead of their first summer getaways free of travel restrictions. While it’s never going to be possible to avoid every single delay or cancellation, we’ve been working closely with airports and airlines to make sure they are running realistic schedules.
"The 22 measures we’ve published today set out what we’re doing to support the industry. It’s now on airports and airlines to commit to running the flights they’ve promised or cancel them with plenty of time to spare so we can avoid the kind of scenes we saw at Easter and half term.
"With 100 days having passed since we set out that restrictions would be eased, there’s simply no excuse for widespread disruption."