Cancelled flight? The truth behind the delays in the UK and passenger rights explained

Passengers are experiencing long queues at Manchester Airport this week.
Passengers are experiencing long queues at Manchester Airport this week. Copyright @BhChillin76
Copyright @BhChillin76
By Lottie Limb
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Faced with Covid staff shortages, airports from Heathrow to Dublin are struggling to meet a sudden influx of Easter travellers.


Holidaymakers in the UK face further disruption over the Easter holiday, with ongoing delays, cancellations and missed flights at major airports.

Around 60 easyJet flights were cancelled yesterday and Monday due to staff shortages. While chaotic scenes of security queues and abandoned baggage at Manchester Airport continue to be shared online by disgruntled passengers.

Underlying the issues at Heathrow, Manchester, Dublin and other large airports, is a lack of staff capacity to cope with the influx of travellers since the countries’ Covid restrictions were scrapped in March.

“It was the most unpleasant airport experience I have ever had,” one passenger flying from Manchester Airport to Faro yesterday morning tells Euronews Travel.

Andrew Mardon, his wife and their five-year-old daughter stayed in a nearby hotel, and were dismayed to step out at 3.30am to see a queue snaking outside of Terminal 2.

At security, only two of the nine lanes were open, he said, leading to long queues. Even inside departures there were lines for restaurants as many were closed and those that were open had to turn people away due to staff shortages.

“It is a chaotic situation,” he added. “It feels like an apocalyptic scene where an entire nation is trying to evacuate through one airport.”

Police and fire and rescue staff could be drafted in to help tackle the chaos, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham suggested, before the airport’s managing director resigned yesterday.

In Ireland, a spokesperson for DAA, which runs Dublin and Cork Airports, has revealed that all staff including senior management will be redeployed to help frontline colleagues under a new ‘Staff Taskforce’.

So how did things get so bad at these vital hubs, and how can the airport problem be fixed? We spoke to airports, airlines and passengers to find out.

What is causing major delays at UK and Irish airports?

Staff shortages are behind the delays at all airports, as they struggle to cope with the return of passengers. The UK government announced that all remaining travel restrictions would be scrapped in March, less than a month ago. But given the security requirements of airports, it takes longer to refill staff positions which were made vacant at the start of the pandemic.

Heathrow is currently recruiting 1,000 additional security officers to have in place for July, and the vetting process for these roles takes time, a spokesperson said.

“The Easter holiday is the first time where UK travel restrictions have been fully removed since the start of the pandemic and we are expecting passenger numbers, not seen since early March 2020,” they added. “We have been preparing for this for many months like most airports, but we do anticipate that the travel experience may take slightly longer during peak periods.”

Covid infections are also at a record high, with 4.9 million affected according to the latest ONS figures. All companies that operate within airports - from airlines and baggage handlers to border force - are inevitably affected by staff absences as a result. Some commentators have pointed out that scrapping face mask rules will have led to more infections among airport staff.

And though UK travel is largely back to normal, a number of global destinations still require Covid documents which airlines need to verify, leading to bottlenecks at check-in during busy times.

BA’s ongoing IT struggles are another factor

Frank Augstein/AP
BA says it's working on upgrading its IT systems, after another network failure last week.Frank Augstein/AP

Separate to airport staffing issues, is British Airways (BA)’s ongoing battle with IT. At least 50 short-haul flights to and from Heathrow were disrupted on 30 March - with some planes diverted to Gatwick - due to a system failure.

The ‘network connectivity’ problem was solved in two hours, but had a knock-on effect on next day flights too.

The airline has been beset by similar problems in recent years, and says it has a robust investment plan being rolled out, including migrating BA data centres to the cloud.


A spokesperson added, “We took steps to ensure as many customers as possible travelled as planned. We've apologised to our customers and are offering to refund or rebook them onto alternative flights, providing refreshment vouchers and hotel accommodation where needed.”

What are the queues like at Manchester Airport?

One man who was also flying from Manchester yesterday morning, on a regular commute to Belfast, said he understood the staff shortages but more could have been done to ease queues.

Bjorn, who did not want to give his full name, arrived earlier than usual but encountered long queues inside Terminal 1 to get to the main security area. A “one in, one out” system was effectively in place, and with 20 minutes to go before the gate closed he grew increasingly anxious. Luckily staff called people forward with imminent departures, but he said there were “several people getting on the plane out of breath having had to run to get it.”

Andrew Mardon
The long queue from Manchester Airport's T2 yesterday morning.Andrew Mardon

It’s not a start any holidaymaker would wish for, and Bjorn said it was made worse by keeping one of two scanners open for ‘fast-track’ customers. As ever, some people had not followed the rules on liquids and electrical devices which also led to extra searches.

“I wouldn’t be happy to commute every week and have to be at the airport two to three hours before I fly,” he added. “Flybe flew from Terminal 3 for most domestic routes until 2020 which was largely commuter traffic. Now they have gone bust, and T3 is closed, so all domestic traffic including commuters are now in T1 with the holidaymakers which means it’s very busy.”


Could airports be doing more?

Though Manchester’s situation is exacerbated by Covid in various ways, its problems did not start with the pandemic. A 2019 investigation by consumer group Which? found it has the longest average queues of any large UK airport.

In response to the chaotic scenes across UK airports in recent days, aviation union Unite has stated that more should have been done to support staff.

“We warned the aviation sector repeatedly not to use the cover of Covid to slash jobs and pay. This would render it unable to meet demand when passengers returned,” said Unite general secretary Sharon Graham. “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.”

Bargain-basement wages and insecure jobs must be consigned to the past if the sector wants to get back on track.
Sharon Graham
Unite general secretary

Manchester Airport has recruited 400 new staff members, who will complete their training and security clearances this month. “We are doing all we can to recruit the number of colleagues we need to support the remobilisation of our operations after the biggest crisis our industry has ever faced,” a spokesperson says.

What time should I get to the airport to avoid queues?

Given that the disruption looks set to continue over the Easter holiday break (which runs until 18 April for schools), arriving at the airport early is especially important. Manchester Airport has advised passengers to arrive at the earliest time their airline allows them to check-in, and be familiar with the latest baggage and security rules for the speediest progress.


It’s worth noting that airports have not been consistently busy, with some social media users balancing the chaotic reports with stories of quick, 15 minute security experiences.

But even if you give yourself the best chance of a non-stressful start, many fliers are finding the situation to be out of their hands. So what can you do if your flight is badly delayed, or you miss it due to extreme queues?

My flight was delayed, what can I do?

Airlines should be upfront with you about your options if a flight is delayed or cancelled. Passengers are entitled to £220 (€264) compensation for shorter-haul flights (1,500km or less) for flights delayed by more than three hours; rising to £520 (€623) for longer journeys.

You also have a right to be rerouted with other carriers if another airline can get you to your destination quicker, in the case of much delayed or cancelled flights. Airlines should also provide refreshments and accommodation as you await your new flight.

I’ve missed my flight due to long queues, what can I do?

As for missing your flight due to long queues, airlines unfortunately are not legally obliged to help you. Former Gatwick security officer and journalist Simon Calder has some tips, however, to deal with that horrible sinking feeling as the chance of boarding your flight slips away. Firstly, don’t give up too soon, as if a significant number of passengers are stuck in the security then airlines will sometimes delay a flight to enable people to get on board.


Secondly, some will allow you to take a later flight if space is available. But to lower the stakes it may be worth investing in travel insurance that can help you meet the extra cost of a new flight, if you can demonstrate you did everything you could to get on board.

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