When Yil Mills, 32, reached the other side of Gatwick security ahead of her flight to Cyprus last week, she finally allowed herself a sigh of a relief: after three years of not seeing her family because of the pandemic, and a summer of holiday horror stories about airport chaos, she finally felt within touching distance of making it back to her home country for a family wedding.
Looking back, she wishes she hadn’t got her hopes up. An hour before her British Airways (BA) flight was due to take off, Mills receieved the text she’d been dreading: the flight was cancelled due to pilot illness. A search online showed there was no flight for three days, meaning she’d miss the wedding and a signficant portion of a two-week trip she hoped to spend seeing her sick grandmother.
“I’ve now lost three days that I could have spent with her and not had a single apology or ounce of help or care,” she says. “There was no sign of a BA representative at Gatwick to assist or help and there were no apologies when I called the helpline. We were moved from queue-to-queue only to be given a piece of paper and told to rebook and sort our refunds ourselves. I opted for BA because I assumed the both the service and experience would be better, assuming the inflated price would be worth it. I was wrong — it’s been an absolute shambles.”
A shambles it’s been indeed. Former BA boss Willie Walsh might have recently boasted to the media that he’s taken 57 flights this year and “not experienced any disruption, except with one exception”, but many passengers like Mills have not been so lucky. “Carnage”, “hell on earth” and “disaster movie scenes” are just some of the phrases being used to describe this summer’s travel chaos at Heathrow and Gatwick airports by the millions of Brits caught up in the disruption so far, as staff shortages and unprecedented post-Covid demand continue to wreak airport disruption on a “scale never witnessed before”.
Thousands have had their flights from UK airports cancelled in recent months due to staffing and technical issues, and industry insiders are warning that the chaos is far from over. Last week, easyJet’s chief operating officer Peter Bellew resigned amid growing criticism of the airline for cancelling more than 10,000 flights. Meanwhile BA bosses recently told Gatwick and Heathrow officials that it would be axing flights for up to 105,000 holidaymakers this month amid “the most challenging period in [aviation industry] history”, as the deadline for a Government ‘amnesty’ on scheduling rules loomed. Until last Friday, airlines could call off flights they didn’t think they’ll be able to deliver without incurring fines or penalties. Heathrow, Britain’s biggest airport, was expected to be the worst affected and has now asked airlines to stop selling summer tickets, imposing a daily limit of 100,000 passengers as it struggles to cope with the July and August surge.
For many families, however, the government’s olive-branch amnesty deadline came too little too late. Exams, funerals, last goodbyes and once-in-a-lifetime holidays are among the growing list of trips missed amid the disruption, with passengers being left in tears, stranded abroad without essential medication and left to spend as long as several nights sleeping on “freezing cold airport floor[s]” as airlines grapple to steady the rising tide of cancelled flights.
Among the growing catalogue of flight-mare horror stories: 14-hour delays and check-in queues so long that passengers miss their flights; flights cancelled 10 minutes before take-off — even after passengers have boarded the plane; and families told they could be “stranded” in their holiday destination for up to a month, as one British school-age family faced after Wizz Air warned them there were no flights home from Tenerife for as long as four weeks.
“We’ve lost more than £1,000, once you account for the extra four days in Greece and everything we missed back at home,” says restaurant manager Megan Scoble, 26, who was stranded in Greece with her fiancée Kelly for four days this month, leaving them to miss a wedding and a hen do. “We’re devastated — we had no luggage for the entire two-week honeymoon,” say newlyweds Natalie Courtney, 29, and Hamish Runciman, 30, who still haven’t received their large holdall suitcase a week since returning from their trip to the Greek islands because of flight delays.
“My youngest son was in floods of tears when we broke it to him — it was due to be his first time on a plane,” says marketing director Rachael Dines, 42, whose family flight to Rome was cancelled once they’d reached Gatwick airport last month — the third time the trip has been cancelled in three years thanks to Covid. “It felt like there was zero customer service,” she says of the lack of staff to help. “We felt totally abandoned.”
We’re devastated — we had no luggage for the entire two-week honeymoon and still haven’t got it back
Reassuringly for some, it’s not just British airports where passengers say they feel treated worse than cattle. Passengers at Stockholm Arlanda Airport in Sweden this month were being advised to arrive hours before their flight to account for long waiting times and those at Schiphol in Amsterdam are being advised to “wear comfortable shoes” for the staggeringly long delays at check-in.
Four triathletes from London all had to compete in an Ironman race in Finland this weekend without half their kit, after all four bikes and two of their bags went missing on their Finnair flight to Helsinki. “I arrived at Heathrow on Thursday with my bike and a full car of luggage,” says Sam Heward, 29, an ultra-marathon founder from Clapham. “I ended up driving home with just a wallet and my phone.”
So what’s going on and what’s really at the heart of the row that’s quickly coming to define the summer? The short answer: a perfect storm of supply and demand issues in the aviation industry. Airlines and airports laid off hundreds of thousands of staff as air travel ground to a halt in the pandemic, with many being made redundant or finding new jobs in other industries. Now, they are scrambling to find enough staff thanks to recruitment issues and increased security vetting times.
Meanwhile passenger numbers are surging, suddenly, thanks to a final lifting of travel restrictions after two years of semi-travel bans, passport delays and cancelled trips, with many passengers are keen to use vouchers or credit notes from trips cancelled during Covid. Ryanair and Wizz Air both recorded their busiest traffic month since the crisis in June and the industry is reportedly back to about 85 per cent of its 2019 flight capacity around Europe, despite being more than 100,000 staff down.
Not only is this staffing defecit leaving huge gaps in schedules, but it’s also forced existing workers to strike over pay and conditions. “Working conditions have deteriorated so much that the sector is not attractive,” says Eoin Coates, the head of aviation at the European Transport Workers’ Federation, and remaining staff say they’re getting sick from working overtime.
“We’re all exhausted, sick of bearing the brunt of passengers’ understandable frustrations; fed up with the delays that have become a routine part of the job and are making every working day a horrible challenge,” a 26-year-old air hostess recently said of the working conditions she and her colleagues are experiencing this summer. Staff at BA, Ryanair and easyJet are all set to strike in the coming months and passengers are being told to expect as much as another 18 months of airport misery as the scales reset.
So is there a way of improving your odds of making it your destination without disruption — or is this the ‘new normal’ for flying now? Is the anxiety of it all even worth it, especially if rising Covid cases risk re-triggering travel restrictions? And who, if anyone, is to blame?
Most passengers say they don’t blame the individual airline staff. “All customer-facing BA staff we’ve dealt with have been excellent and have tried their best,” says Courtney. “Unfortunately this is a systemic issue with the company and the staff are caught up in the issues just like the customers. The are understaffed and are receiving no support in trying to fix the problems.”
Jet2 boss Steve Heapy recently made headlines after controversially blaming the staffing shortages on “lazy Brits who live off benefits and sit on their arses” rather than applying for jobs. But the mainstream debate seems to largely be a war between the government and airlines.
Airline staff are caught up in this chaos just like the customers — they’re trying their best
Ministers say the aviation industry “should have recruited people ready” for the inevitable summer rush and post-pandemic travel boom, saying they’re speeding up airport staff checks to ease recruitment delays. Transport secretary Grant Shapps recently unveiled a 22-point plan to save summer, including a one-off ‘flight-slot amnesty’ in a bid to reduce maddeningly last-minute flight cancellations.
But aviation bosses are fighting back. Birmingham Airport chief executive Nick Barton recently blamed the recruitment delays on having little notice of final travel restrictions easing earlier this year, and many industry leaders cite Brexit for staffing issues. easyJet, Britain’s biggest carrier and one of the worst-hit airlines for cancellations, says it had to reject 8,000 overseas applicants thanks to post-Brexit immigration rules.
Heathrow airport says it’s hiring 1,000 staff, but warns that the current travel boom might be a summer bubble and will ease off in autumn. So is it that bubble likely to burst or is it just a sign of things to come? Some say the escalating cost-of-living crisis could force customers to tighten their belts and cut down on travel, but others are warning airlines not to bank on this fact: those who can afford holidays will keep demand high, and there’s still long summer of disruption ahead first — if last month’s half-term chaos was anything to go by.
Most holidaymakers say they’re bracing themselves for fresh chaos: school summer holidays are set to begin in a matter of weeks and several airline strikes are on the horizon: staff at Ryanair announced on Saturday that they’re the latest to threaten strike action later this month, with BA check-in workers already set to walk off the job later in July. Some industry bodies are warning that airport queues could last into next summer and Heathrow boss John Holland-Kaye has warned that it could take 18 months to get the system fully staffed. But will the customers still be there when they do?
Heward says he and his friends will drive if they ever race in Europe again — even if it takes them two days in the car. “It’s not worth the risk or the faff,” he says after his “nightmare” flight experience to Helsinki. Scoble says she’ll certainly not fly with BA again after her flight-mare in Greece, and Courtney says she’d be hesitant to.
Others say they’ll stick to staycations when they can — though that’s not quite so possible for those with loved ones abroad. “I can’t afford to lose three precious days of annual leave every time I want to see my family,” says Mills. “I thought restrictions lifting would be the end of all this travel chaos... if only I’d known it was only the beginning.”