Airlines told cancelling early is 'better' than risking summer travel chaos

Airlines have been encouraged to cancel flights ahead of time rather than on the day of departure. Credit: PA

Airlines are urged to review their summer timetables to ensure they are “deliverable".

To avoid a repeat of school holiday travel chaos, earlier cancellations are “better” than axing flights on the day of departure, the Department for Transport and the Civil Aviation Authority has said.

They issued a joint letter to the aviation industry calling on companies to take “all possible steps” to “avoid the unacceptable scenes we have recently witnessed".

Tens of thousands of passengers have been affected by flight cancellations and long queues at airports in recent months, particularly during Easter and last month’s half-term school holiday.

The disruption has been blamed on aviation firms struggling to recruit enough staff to cope with the spike in demand for travel, after thousands of jobs were cut in 2020 due to the Covid pandemic.

Airports have seen long queues in recent months Credit: Peter Byrne/PA

Rannia Leontaridi, director general for aviation at the Department for Transport and CAA boss Richard Moriarty set out five “specific expectations” for the sector in their letter.

They wrote: “We think it’s important that each airline reviews afresh its plans for the remainder of the summer season until the end of September to develop a schedule that is deliverable.

“Your schedules must be based on the resources you and your contractors expect to have available, and should be resilient for the unplanned and inevitable operational challenges that you will face.

“While cancellations at any time are a regrettable inconvenience to passengers, it is our view that cancellations at the earliest possibility to deliver a more robust schedule are better for consumers than late notice on-the-day cancellations.”

The letter stated that airlines must have “the processes and resources in place to keep consumers informed” about their rights during disruption, such as having “sufficiently staffed call centres and user-friendly digital channels.”

Queues at Heathrow Airport last Tuesday. Credit: PA

It also proposed that airport chief executives create working groups to bring together airlines, ground handlers, air traffic control and Border Force to “ensure a more coordinated strategic approach.”

The letter comes as Oliver Richardson, national officer for civil aviation at trade union Unite, told MPs that a ranking of airlines based on their number of cancellations “almost exactly corresponds” with how many jobs they cut during the pandemic.

Figures from Cirium - which provides data on airlines - show that:

In the month of May there were:

  • A total of 882 flights cancelled departing the UK, which equates to 136,299 seats

  • easyJet cancelled the most flights – a total of 404 from the UK – followed by Loganair (103 flights) and British Airways (89 flights)

  • Flights on average were delayed just over 14 minutes.

In the first two weeks of June:

  • There have been 940 cancellations from the UK, equating to an estimate of 150,931 seats

  • June 5 saw the most cancellations in one day – a total of 116 departing the UK – 19,777 seats in one day

  • Cancellations dropped to 55 from the UK on June 13, with around 45 cancelled on June 14

  • Most flights cancelled in June so far have been made by easyJet – a total of 528 – more than the total month of May

Giving evidence to the Commons’ Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, he said Ryanair, which made no compulsory redundancies, is in a “different position from the likes of British Airways”, which has been forced to cancel more than 100 daily flights in recent weeks due to staff shortages after implementing severe job losses in 2020.

“They did get rid of too many people in a number of instances,” Mr Richardson said.

But British Airways corporate affairs director Lisa Tremble refused to acknowledge that the job cuts are contributing to cancellations.

Executives are being urged to do more to prevent late cancellations and delays. Credit: Damien Storan/PA

Labour MP Darren Jones, who chairs the committee, repeatedly pressed her on the issue.

He asked: “Do you think there was a connection between sacking 10,000 members of your staff using aggressive fire-and-rehire tactics, and now cancelling the most flights per day?”

Ms Tremble said “it’s very complicated”, stating that the company “had to protect as many jobs as possible.”

Mr Jones responded: “We’ve asked you a very direct question, I think three times, and you’ve chosen not to answer it.”

EasyJet chief operating officer Sophie Deckers insisted that the Luton-based airline – which is also making a large number of cancellations – did plan for the spike in demand for travel but delays in new cabin crew recruits receiving security passes “caught us by surprise".

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She said the process is typically taking around 14 weeks, compared with 10 weeks before the pandemic.

The delay is due to difficulties many individuals are having obtaining reference for all the jobs they have done in the past five years, with the pandemic often creating complicated employment histories.

“In many cases, people have had 10 jobs in the last couple of years,” Ms Deckers said.

“Maybe some of them were only for a couple of weeks, but we’re required to get a reference from each of those, so that’s what’s taking the length of time.

“We have today 142 crew ready and trained to go online that don’t have their ID passes.”

Queues to enter security at Gatwick Airport on Tuesday. Credit: PA/Diego Garcia Rodriguez

Sue Davies, head of consumer rights at consumer group Which?, said the aviation industry and the government “need to shoulder the responsibility for the chaos that we’ve seen.”

She acknowledged that the sector has been “particularly affected” by the virus crisis, but stressed that consumers have “lost money and suffered huge emotional stress.”

Ms Davies accused airlines of selling tickets when “they don’t know for sure that those flights are actually going to be able to go.”

She added: “There’s just blatant flouting of consumer rights and a failure to put passenger interests first.”

Aviation minister Robert Courts said it has been an “exceptionally difficult time” for aviation firms but it is “the responsibility of the sector” to ensure it employs sufficient staff.