Holidaymakers to face new disruption as 'airlines told to axe more flights' amid staff shortages

Many holidaymakers are set to have their summer travel plans disrupted, reports Ian Woods

Thousands more passengers will soon be told their flights are cancelled, it has been reported, as airlines finalise cuts they having to make due to staff shortages.

The Telegraph reported that airlines using Heathrow, the UK's busiest airport, are reworking their schedules and must tell officials by Friday which flights they are planning to axe.

The cancellations are part of an a one-off "amnesty" on airport slot rules, which is intended to allow airlines to plan ahead and deliver a more realistic summer schedule with a view to minimising last-minute disruption at airports.

The amnesty means airlines will be able to cancel flights without being penalised for not using their airport slot.

Slots are used to manage capacity at the busiest airports, giving airlines authorisation to take off or land at a particular airport at a specified time on a specified day.

Airlines must use slots a certain amount of times each season in order to keep them, and this “amnesty” is intended to give them the leeway to put a more manageable schedule in place without the risk of losing a slot due to cancelling flights.

The Telegraph reported that British Airways, which has its home base at Heathrow, is expected to bear the brunt of the cancellations. It previously planned to carry 1.8 million passengers across more than 9,000 flights from Heathrow during July alone.

Like many airports and airlines, Heathrow is currently facing staff shortages.

The UK's busiest airport is currently averaging around 200,000 passengers per day. Pre-Covid pandemic it could handle 240,000 but that was when it was fully staffed and currently only 80% of positions are filled.

Job losses during the pandemic have still not been totally filled and BA has been criticised for its fire and rehire actions in a bid to save money.

It also takes an average of three months to vet and get security clearance for a new employee, airports are still playing catch up. And all this as the number of passengers is rocketing. It's only the start of July and Heathrow has already handled more passengers this year than the whole of 2021.

While travel restrictions for the UK have been lifted, rising Covid numbers mean more staff are off sick, leading to last minute flight cancellations and big queues at check in and security, while airlines are also still having to check passenger vaccination certificates needed to fly to many countries who still have restrictions in place.

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A spokesperson for BA said the airline "welcomes these new measures, which help us to provide the certainty our customers deserve by making it easier to consolidate some of our quieter daily flights to multi-frequency destinations well in advance, and to protect more of our holiday flights".

A spokesperson for Heathrow said the slot amnesty is “good news for passengers”, adding: “This amnesty will enable airlines to make early choices to consolidate their schedules, boosting the resilience of summer operations and giving passengers the confidence they deserve ahead of their journeys.

“We encourage airlines to take this opportunity to reconsider their summer schedules without penalty and inform passengers as early as possible of any changes.”

Last month, the Department for Transport (DfT) said it would give airlines a short window to hand back slots for the rest of the summer season that they are not confident they will be able to operate.

“This will help passengers find alternative arrangements ahead of time, rather than face the kind of last-minute cancellations seen over the Easter and half-term holidays,” the department said.

Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel, said: “An amnesty on slot rules is potentially good news for passengers as it should encourage airlines who need to cancel more flights to do so now rather than at the last minute and could ease disruption this summer by letting better-staffed airlines step in and fly routes.

“For this to work, carriers must surrender their slots to other airlines if they are unable to fulfil them. This will help reduce cancellations and end the unsustainable practice of airlines flying near-empty planes to retain slots.”

However, even if the new schedule is implemented, thousands of BA workers have voted to strike over pay in the coming weeks, although no dates have been announced.

BA staff are demanding the 10% of pay they had “stolen” from them last year as they faced “fire and rehire” tactics during the pandemic.

And there's industrial action affecting several European airlines too, meaning last-minute cancellations could still be on the cards.

The latest news of more potential cancellations comes after another week of “travel chaos” at Heathrow when the airport ordered flights to be cancelled because it could not handle them, while on Saturday delays were expected due to a technical fault in the airport’s fuelling system, which was temporarily closed down for an hour.

A Heathrow spokesperson said: “A technical fault with the airport’s fuelling system has now been resolved.

“We are working with all airport partners to minimise disruption, however flights out of Heathrow this afternoon may be subject to delays.

“We apologise for any impact this has on people’s journeys.”