Heathrow Airport's three-week travel chaos looks set to continue this week, with passengers complaining of waiting times exceeding three hours on Monday morning.
Mass flight cancellations, long queues and problems with e-gate passport checkpoints are blighting the UK's busiest airport as millions of people prepare to make a dash for overseas destinations during the Easter holidays. The industry is also gearing up for a busy summer season after the UK government axed all travel restrictions.
British Airways has cancelled about 100 flights to and from Heathrow, but the airline said only a handful were last-minute cancellations. Budget airline easyJet has cancelled more than 60 trips, blaming high levels of staff shortages due to the coronavirus.
After the majority of schools in Britain closed for the Easter break on Friday, travellers heading abroad from Heathrow on Sunday were forced to queue for longer periods. The airport blamed the disruption on Covid-19 checks required by destinations and “high passenger volumes”.
Frustrated travellers took to social media on Monday to vent their anger over lengthy waiting times at check-in desks.
Vishal Sood posted a photo of passengers standing in line at check-in desks. He captioned the post: “Heathrow Terminal 2 is just shambles! 3.5 hours to check in a single suitcase which then doesn’t arrive!
“On our return flight, doors are closed so we had to wait 20 mins, then 1.5 hours in immigration! Such a joke.”
Passengers at Heathrow on Sunday shared photos showing corridors packed with people waiting to have their passports checked upon arrival. Some suggested the tailbacks were caused by issues with e-gates.
Manchester Airport has also been hit by setbacks as the busy holiday season kicks off.
Simon Calder, a British travel journalist and broadcaster, said on Monday there had been “a whole slew of cancellations of British Airways flights overnight”.
“British Airways, I’m counting about 90 cancellations to and from Heathrow, its main base, of course,” he told Sky News. “It’s pretty much the same problem as easyJet is facing. There’s a kind of temporary, serious problem with the sheer number of who’ve got Covid.”
He said the industry was behind on the process of rehiring staff after many were laid off during the pandemic, and carriers are faced with recruiting and training new staff and obtaining security clearances.
Mr Calder said the lengthy process was being conducted in the backdrop of a “huge demand for people wanting to travel” after the UK government lifted all travel restrictions.
He insisted all passengers who had their flights cancelled are entitled to a seat on the next available flight, regardless if it is economy, business or first class, and said airlines should be paying for hotels and meals if an overnight stay is required.
“I’m hearing, very sadly, a number of passengers saying that they’re not delivering that and airlines say oh yes we do. So as long as you know what your rights are you can try to insist on them.”
Mr Calder said Manchester Airport, the largest airport serving the Midlands and the North of England, had “pretty chronic problems”.
Luke Maher, who flew from Manchester on Monday morning on an Etihad flight, said it took him “two hours to clear check-in and security”. He shared a picture on Twitter showing crowds of people queuing to have their documents processed. He captioned the post: “Hour to check in and still waiting security — no riots yet” and added a laughing face emoji.
On Sunday one passenger at Heathrow reported sitting on a plane for two hours waiting for take-off.
“Due to high passenger volumes and the Covid documentation checks still required by many end destinations, Terminal 2 departures has experienced some congestion today,” a Heathrow representative said.
“Our teams are supporting our airline partners to get passengers away on their journeys as quickly as possible and we apologise for any inconvenience this has caused.”
Manchester Airport has had similar problems in recent weeks as it struggled to cope with delays caused by more travellers amid a staff shortage.
Lengthy queues before boarding flights have become common, while some arrivals turned to social media this weekend to voice their complaints at extensive waits in the baggage reclaim halls.
“We apologise to passengers whose experience at Manchester Airport has fallen short of the standards they expected,” a spokesman for Manchester Airport said.
“As we recover from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, our whole industry is facing staff shortages and recruitment challenges.
“As a result, we are advising customers that security queues may be longer than usual and we encourage them to arrive at the earliest time recommended by their airline.
“Due to the security checks and training associated with these roles, it takes time for people to be able to start work in our operation.
“That is why we are exploring a number of short-term measures to deliver the best possible service we can, such as the use of agency staff and different ways in which existing colleagues can support our operation.
“We are aware similar challenges are being faced by airlines and third parties, such as baggage handling agents, operating on our site.
“Together, we are working hard to deliver the best possible service we can in the circumstances and to resolve these issues as quickly as possible.”
Meanwhile, a representative of easyJet told The National that around 60 flights scheduled to and from the UK on Monday had been cancelled. They blamed high levels of staff sickness caused by Covid.
The carrier said Monday's cancellations represent only “a small proportion of tomorrow’s total flying programme, which was planned to be more than 1,645 flights".
“As a result of the current high rates of Covid infections across Europe, like all businesses easyJet is experiencing higher than usual levels of employee sickness,” the representative said.
“We have taken action to mitigate this through the rostering of additional standby crew, however, with the current levels of sickness we have also decided to make some cancellations in advance which are focused on consolidating flights where we have multiple frequencies, so customers have more options to rebook their travel, often on the same day. We are sorry for any inconvenience this may cause to customers on affected flights.
“Customers have been contacted and provided with their options which include rebooking on to an alternative flight or receiving a voucher or full refund.”
A representative of BA told The National that six short-haul flights from Heathrow scheduled for Monday had been cancelled overnight due to staff shortages linked to Covid-19. No flights to the Middle East were affected.
The airline last week removed around 30 flights from its schedule as part of efforts to scale back before the busy summer season sets in.
In total, there were more than 100 cancelled BA flights which had been due to operate in and out of UK airports on Monday. The figure is largely made up of flights which were called off in recent weeks and months due to travel restrictions in Asian destinations such as Hong Kong and Tokyo, and travel bans to and from Russia.
“Aviation has been one of the industries worst hit by the pandemic and airlines and airports are experiencing the same issues rebuilding their operations while managing the continuing impact of Covid,” the representative said in a statement. “We are also building a completely new subsidiary at Gatwick while increasing the size of our schedule at Heathrow.
“So while the vast majority of our flights continue to operate as planned, as a precaution we've slightly reduced our schedule between now and the end of May as we ramp back up.
“We've apologised to customers who are affected by this and to limit the inconvenience have rebooked them on to earlier or later flights on the same day they were originally due to travel where possible. We're also offering them the opportunity to book on to an alternative flight or request a full refund.”