Passengers in the UK and abroad have told of the bank holiday weekend chaos experienced as a result of air traffic control (ATC) failures which are believed to have been caused by “unreliable” flight data.
Travellers are expected to continue facing disruption to their flights in the coming days as 200,000 passengers are estimated to be affected.
Martin Rolfe, CEO of National Air Traffic Services (NATS), said on Wednesday that a failure was caused by flight data which its system “didn’t understand” and “couldn’t interpret”. He added that the possibility of a cyber-attack has been ruled out.
It has been estimated that the ATC failures could cost airlines up to £100m, according to Willie Walsh, director general of the International Air Transport Association.
An expectation of compensation for those affected is mounting on carriers that have had to severely delay or cancel flights.
In some instances, travellers have been stranded for days abroad and even in the UK, having to reschedule flights or even book additional nights in hotels at a cost.
Brianne Bartolini, a Canadian passenger who lives in Rome, flew with her toddler to London last week. She was only supposed to be in the UK for two days.
With her initial flight to Rome cancelled on Friday, she was forced to extend her stay until the bank holiday Monday. With her journey booked for 2pm, she arrived at Heathrow’s fifth terminal to the disappointment that it had already been postponed until 7:30pm, and then until 10pm after going through security.
“When I got over to customer service, they weren’t answering individual questions”
The passenger said: “At around 2pm I tried to go to the lounge, but there was a queue to get into the airport lounge. I’ve never seen that before.
“My daughter was napping so I grabbed myself a cider at the nearest bar and prepared to get into the customer service line.
“When I got over to customer service, they weren’t answering individual questions, just yelling to the crowd that air traffic control was ‘done’ and that everyone was delayed but that international flights would be leaving.”
She continued: “I managed to book a new flight to Naples, which wasn’t showing as cancelled yet, and asked [an airline staffer] about moving my bag. She said not to worry about my bag, but just take the flight if I was able to and worry about the bag [later].”
Brianne said she then walked to the other side of Terminal 5 where an airline employee told her all flights were going to be cancelled, including her Naples flight. After waiting around the terminal for several hours, took the decision to book a hotel in case she had to stay in London for another night with her daughter.
After “giving up”, her situation became worse: “I went to reclaim my bag, and our flight to Rome was one of 50 flights that would not be reclaiming luggage. I packed almost everything in there because it’s difficult having a carryon and a toddler and a stroller.
“We were out of clean clothes because we’d stayed three days longer than planned and by now it was 10:30pm so we couldn’t even stop at a store”.
Brianne was eventually able to book a flight to Perugia for Tuesday morning which she then took without her luggage. Since landing, she has not yet been able to reclaim it as she said her airline’s system for lost baggage forms was down, and will have to wait to try again.
British travellers abroad have also been severely affected trying to get home. One newlywed couple shared their honeymoon nightmare.
Tweeting from France yesterday afternoon, Beatriz Oliveira took aim at her airline: “British Airways, you bl***y idiots cancelled my flight from Lisbon to London to then book me a flight from Lisbon to Paris and forgot to book my connection flight… I am now stranded in Paris, spending more money in hotels and wasting days of my honeymoon!
“Who is responsible for this after all? Who is going to take accountability for the money and time wasted over the last three days?”
“Who the f*** is going to pay me back for the days I’m wasting, plus [the] hotel in Paris, plus food and on top of all of this you lost my luggage! What a waste of an airline.”
In a later tweet, she added: “Customer service promised us an upgrade, [we] got to the airport there was no note of this. [We] asked to speak to a manager and only when I lost my mind, the manager came down.
“[He] said he can’t upgrade us at the airport, customer service said they can only upgrade us at the airport. Who is responsible for this after all? Who is going to take accountability for the money and time wasted over the last three days? Don’t promise upgrades if you can’t upgrade or you don’t want to.”
Beatriz went onto describe her situation as “ridiculous”, whilst her husband, Tarik Rami, told ITV News: “In terms of the impact, it’s obviously not the honeymoon I promised Beatriz. I think what’s more frustrating more than anything is that accountability doesn’t seem to be the strong suit of the airlines or indeed the holiday company”.
On Tuesday, Which? Travel editor, Rory Boland, said they’re seeing “airlines failing to properly communicate with their passengers or fulfil their legal obligations such as offering timely rerouting or providing overnight accommodation”.
“Travellers should be aware that their airline has a responsibility to reroute them as soon as possible, even if that means buying them a ticket with a rival carrier – a rule that some airlines appear to be ignoring. Passengers should also be given food and refreshments and overnight accommodation if required.”
He accused airlines of attempting to “wriggle out” of their legal responsibilities knowing that they’re “unlikely to face any real consequences for leaving passengers high and dry during periods of disruption”.
Which? is urging passengers to lodge claims for compensation where flights have been delayed or cancelled but other airlines seem to be operating as usual.
“My stuff was destroyed and we were left with nowhere to sleep and no one to help us”
Evie Clark, a TikToker with more than 200,000 followers, described her experience being delayed from getting home from Palma de Mallorca Airport as “hell”.
In a video that has gained 14.5m views on the social media platform, she said: “What was meant to be a two-hour flight home turned into 30 hours of hell.
“The airport was flooded, my stuff was destroyed and we were left with nowhere to sleep and no one to help us.”
Her flight was initially delayed by 10 hours, and so decided to take a nap – only to wake up to the airport in the middle of a flood. After waiting nine hours, she was able to queue for the gate only to be told the flight was now cancelled and that it had been rearranged for the following morning.
She said her airline then promised passengers a hotel room for the night so she had to collect her luggage, which was “drenched through” upon finding it. Evie’s “hell” worsened when she arrived at the hotel, where she was told that the room supposedly booked by her airline “doesn’t exist”.
“I cannot make this s**t up. They’ve treated us so badly”, she told her followers.
A report into the air traffic control failures is expected this Monday. Whilst some UK media outlets have suggested the blame for the failures lies at the door of an unnamed French airline, these claims have been challenged as attempting to find a foreign scapegoat.
Image credit: ITV News (screengrab)