British Airways and easyJet cancelled more than 150 flights to and from the UK on Wednesday, as holidaymakers faced further delays going into the extended Queen’s platinum jubilee bank holiday, amid further recriminations between ministers and the aviation industry over who is to blame for the disruption.
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, met industry bosses on Wednesday afternoon following news that BA had cancelled at least 124 short-haul flights at Heathrow airport, although the airline said passengers had been given advance notice.
The low-cost carrier easyJet also scrapped at least 31 flights at Gatwick airport, including those scheduled to depart for Bologna, Barcelona, Prague, Krakow, and Edinburgh.
The travel operator Tui has cancelled six flights a day from Manchester airport for the whole of June. Manchester airport blamed the move on staffing shortages at Tui and its ground handler Swissport, which manages its check-in and baggage handling.
On the latest day of flight cancellations and disruption at airports, one easyJet passenger tweeted a photograph taken shortly after 4am at Manchester airport, which showed a lengthy queue of people in the terminal’s car park.
Describing the situation as “carnage”, the passenger wrote: “Took two hours 45 minutes to get through – most of that was bag drop. Now on the aircraft, but due to shortage of ground crew, there’s going to be another delay of approximately 50 minutes.”
Manchester airport is expecting more than 330,000 passengers to pass through the airport between Thursday 2 June and Sunday 5 June. The airport apologised for disruption and advised passengers to arrive three hours before their flight.
Another easyJet passenger complained of having to wait for more than two and a half hours to collect their luggage after they landed at Gatwick shortly before 3am. He called this “simply not good enough”.
Travellers have faced several weeks of delays and disruption at airports across the UK, with demand for foreign trips bouncing back after the easing of all UK Covid travel restrictions.
Many workers in the aviation industry were made redundant or left the sector during the pandemic, when international travel was grounded for months at a time.
Shapps has criticised travel firms, saying they had “seriously oversold flights and holidays relative to their capacity to deliver”. Following the meeting on Wednesday with senior leaders from the aviation industry including airports, airlines and ground handling companies, he warned that there could not be a repeat of such disruption over the summer.
He said: “We’re grateful to those airlines and operators who have continued to deliver good services despite the current pressures and we recognise that not all operators have been affected in the same way. I also understand the resourcing strains on the aviation sector, but it does not excuse poor planning and overbooking flights that they cannot service. The companies who have seen the most disruption need to learn from those who ran services smoothly.”
He said he had “made the changes needed to allow the sector to prepare for summer, but now we need industry to do their bit”.
Airlines and airports have said that they had repeatedly requested specific financial support for the sector during the pandemic, as government Covid travel restrictions made international travel difficult and costly.
Willie Walsh, the director general of the International Air Transport Association, intervened earlier on Wednesday, blaming the half-term holiday holdups on delays in getting clearances for new recruits.
Walsh, the former chief executive of the British Airways owner, IAG, said it was now taking up to three months to obtain security badges for new employees in the UK, approximately triple the amount of time previously required.
The government disputed this. A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office denied that security vetting of applicants was taking longer and said applications from the aviation industry were being prioritised.
“It is for the aviation industry to manage resourcing at airports and staff absences, especially at busy times of the year,” the spokesperson said.
The May half-term holiday usually marks the start of the peak tourist season, and trade unions are warning that this week’s chaotic scenes at airports are likely to be repeated throughout the summer.
Unite is cautioning that Ryanair flights from Stansted could face serious disruption as workers responsible for baggage handling, check-in and other services demand higher wages.
Employees of the ground handler Blue Handling took a 10% pay cut in 2020 during the pandemic, and have rejected the company’s current offer of a 4% pay rise. Unite is threatening possible strike action unless the company responds to soaring inflation and offers the 750 workers a better deal.