More than 100 British Airways and easyJet flights scheduled for Friday have been cancelled, affecting about 15,000 passengers, before what is expected to be a nightmare weekend for UK airports.
After days of long queues for check-in and security, passengers at Manchester Airport on Friday morning reported a vast improvement in the situation, with some saying they had cleared the lines in as little as 20 minutes.
After talks with Greater Manchester Police, Manchester mayor Andy Burnham announced measures on Wednesday to ease disruption, including drafting in extra officers.
He said the situation was “unacceptable” but conceded the problem would not disappear overnight.
Friday's axed journeys were due to a number of factors including staff shortages and BA’s decision to scale back its schedule until the end of May. Both airlines have cancelled hundreds of flights since last week due to staff sickness linked to Covid-19.
Passengers at Heathrow on Friday morning reported longer-than-usual waiting times.
Hilary Smith said she had been standing in line for over an hour waiting to have her passport checked after her flight landed at Heathrow
"What a welcome home carnage," she tweeted. "An hour in already and all this to get through."
She shared a photo showing lines of travellers snaking towards customs desks and added the hashtag #thequeueishuge.
After his flight touched down at Terminal 2, Gerry D'Angelo tweeted to say he had been waiting to have his passport checked for 40 minutes and still had a long line of people ahead of him.
"If only they had some way of knowing what time the planes were going to land," he quipped.
The chaotic scenes at Heathrow and Manchester airports in recent days prompted the Civil Aviation Authority to write a stern letter to airlines warning them that the “distressing” flight cancellations could have a ripple effect across the industry which is recovering from the battering it took during the pandemic.
The CAA urged airlines to set “deliverable” schedules after thousands of UK flights were cancelled due to staff shortages.
Chief executive Richard Moriarty said late cancellations and excessive delays were “not just distressing for affected consumers but have the potential to impact confidence levels across the industry”.
He acknowledged that many are in the process of recruiting large numbers of staff but “it is clear that this has not always happened sufficiently quickly to cope with the increased passenger travel in recent days”.
“Given the consequences for passengers of cancelled and disrupted journeys, I encourage you to do all you can to ensure that you have the necessary level of appropriately trained and cleared staff resources in place,” he wrote in the letter.
It is “very important” that airlines are setting schedules “on a basis that is deliverable given available staff (including contractors), and has resilience for staff sickness, including from Covid”.
As well as being hit by higher-than-usual levels of staff sickness, British Airways and easyJet, like many other airlines, are struggling to recruit to cope with a surge in demand for travel.
In a separate letter to airports, Mr Moriarty urged bosses to “work closely with airlines” to ensure “disruption is kept to a minimum”.
He sought “reassurance” that passengers with reduced mobility “continue to receive the assistance that they require”.
Long queues have formed at Heathrow, Manchester and Birmingham airports since the schools closed for Easter holidays last week.
Bosses at Heathrow and Manchester airports are braced for a nightmare weekend as staff shortages look likely to hamper what is expected to be the travel industry’s busiest day of the year so far.
The first batch of week-long holidaymakers are expected to return from their Easter break on Saturday while the second wave sets off.
Airports and seaports are preparing for numbers not seen since before the Covid-19 pandemic, as millions take advantage of the school holidays to head abroad without the hassle of travel restrictions.
Passengers at Heathrow on Thursday morning told The National that queues were longer than they had seen before, while Manchester Airport continued to experience chaos. Greater Manchester Police confirmed officers would be sent to the airport to help staff retain order.
One man, Nate, told The National he was in a queue to pass through security at Heathrow for 45 minutes before his Delta flight to New York on Thursday morning.
“The line at security was longer than I have seen it before. It took probably 45 minutes to get through when it has normally taken 10-15 in the past,” he said. “It was just surprising to see so many people at the airport and the security queue so long.”
He said the extended queueing times seemed to have been caused by a higher-than-usual number of travellers, as opposed to a lack of staff manning security stations.
After a long lull in air travel because of Covid restrictions, many passengers appeared to be unfamiliar with the rules for carry-on items, Nate said.
“A lot of people were held up because they hadn’t emptied water bottles or put liquids in bags,” he said, suggesting it may be their “first holiday after travel restrictions” were eased.
Another traveller, who gave her name as Laura, said the queues at Heathrow’s Terminal 3 on Thursday were “shocking”.
“I didn’t have a bag to drop and was checked in already. [It] took over half an hour just to get through that queue to scan your boarding pass and get into security,” she told The National as she prepared to board a BA flight to Zagreb.
“Admittedly, it’s loads of families going through so not the usual Heathrow ‘crowd’."
She said a security guard advised her to use a lift to reach the departure lounge because “the queue from downstairs was even longer”.
“Effectively, I cut in halfway coming by lift,” she said. “Then another 20-odd minutes to pass through security and again a lot of delays there due to last-minute shuffling, water bottles being full, laptops being fished out.”
Given her first-hand experience of the extended waiting times that have blighted the west London airport for days, the passenger said Heathrow appeared to be unprepared for the surge in demand for holiday travel.
“If I’m honest, [it] just feels like Heathrow isn’t used to dealing with predominantly inexperienced and heavily leisure/ family travellers. I’ve seen it much, much busier and it wasn’t this kind of chaotic.”
Asked about the waiting time she was forced to tolerate, she said: “It’s shocking. I’ve flown from Heathrow frequently for 30 years. It’s akin [to] Stansted in the middle of the school holiday season … as the majority of passengers are those, not your usual frequent traveller kind. Plenty of time and patience needed.”
After days of chaotic scenes at Manchester Airport, passengers were still forced to queue outside terminals to enter buildings on Thursday morning. There appeared to be an improvement on Friday, with many travellers tweeting they had passed through check-in and security in a timely manner.
The airport, along with much of the aviation industry, has struggled to recruit staff made redundant after the pandemic shut down airports and travel.
Manchester Airport apologised this weekend to passengers after they admitted they had “fallen short of the standards they expected” and on Tuesday its managing director Karen Smart stepped down.
On Wednesday, Mr Burnham said he was concerned by the scenes at the airport and that many travellers had faced "an unacceptable experience and it is important that every possible step is taken to prevent a repeat.."
“All airports have struggled to one extent or another with lengthy queues caused by staffing issues arising from the pandemic," he said. “But it is clear that Manchester has faced particular challenges.
“Some of the issues being experienced by Manchester Airport are beyond their control. However, that is not to say that other things could not have been done differently.
“Firstly, while the airport has been making strenuous efforts to recruit, more should have been done earlier.
“Secondly, communications to passengers ahead of and upon arrival should have been better, as should the management of the queues.
“However, it is important to acknowledge that some of the pressure arises from the decision Manchester Airport has taken to protect people’s holidays and trips and avoid cancellations as other airports have done.”
He said the airport expected disruption to continue for the next two months but among new measures brought in to tackle the problem are:
· Airport management are increasing the use of overtime and utilising temporary staff.
· Additional staff will help organise the large numbers of people passing through the airport and better information will be provided to those queueing.
· More real-time information on security queues will be published on the airport website and some airlines are starting to offer passengers the option to check in bags the night before if they are taking an early flight.
Mr Burnham said there will also be an increased police presence at the airport.
He said the airport had recruited 220 staff who were currently awaiting clearance while security checks were completed, but that the exercise was taking longer than usual.