As the Easter school holidays begin for many families across the UK, the international transport network is creaking badly.
British Airways and easyJet are canceling dozens of flights every day – with at least 15,000 passengers affected by Thursday’s groundings alone.
BA’s cancellations relate to short-haul operations from Heathrow, while easyJet’s main base, Gatwick, has the highest number of canceled departures for the airline.
Hundreds more domestic and European flight cancellations are expected ahead of and over the Easter weekend.
If your flight is going ahead, there’s the airport to deal with. Manchester Airport’s chief executive has resigned after weeks of extremely long queues for security at the UK’s third busiest airport.
Meanwhile, motorists hoping to navigate from Dover this weekend are expected to experience more traffic jams.
The RAC says to avoid the M25 around London and the A303 near Stonehenge this weekend. And in the longer term, if you plan to spend Easter in the UK, one of the main intercity roads will be largely closed.
So what’s the outlook for travelers this week and as we approach the Easter weekend – and what are your rights if it all goes wrong?
British Airways and easyJet blame staff shortages due to Covid-19 but, interestingly, other short-haul airlines – such as Ryanair, Wizz Air and Jet2 – don’t seem to have any problems.
Whatever the cause, the standard rule in the event of a flight cancellation – as set out by the Civil Aviation Authority – is that you are entitled to travel on the day of original departure.
If the canceling airline cannot take you on its own planes and a seat is available on another carrier’s flight, it must pay for your trip on its competing airline. This is entirely separate from cash compensation, which is intended to compensate for inconvenience rather than to pay for alternative transport.
Looking at Thursday’s grounded 7.35am British Airways flight between Heathrow and Milan Malpensa, for example, BA can put you on the 11.30am flight on the same route. He will also have to pay £220 in compensation under air passenger rights rules.
If the cancellation occurs while you are at the airport, you also owe “a reasonable amount of food and drink” based on the length of the delay.
For easyJet’s canceled Thursday morning flight from Gatwick to Kefalonia, the airline will have to spend hundreds of pounds to get you there. It has no other services on the route, and indeed it has canceled the UK’s only link to the beautiful Aegean island all day.
The alternative is a flight to Athens, one night in an airport hotel, meals and a domestic flight. Not to mention, of course, compensation. This is very expensive for the airline, but also extremely inconvenient for passengers.
UK airports have seen passenger numbers over the past two years fall to 5% of pre-pandemic levels – with some falling to zero. With hindsight and unlimited cash, aviation would have kept the tens of thousands of experienced (and security-cleared) employees who left the industry during the coronavirus pandemic.
One strategy is to arrive ridiculously early – say, 3am for a 7am flight (although if you’re checking bags you’ll need to make sure your airline’s check-in counter is open).
At Gatwick’s main holiday airport, North Terminal security opens at 2 a.m. and South Terminal security opens at 3:30 a.m. Checkpoints at Heathrow usually open at 4am.
But for the first wave of flights, the numbers are rising very quickly – at 5.30am many UK airports are very busy.
Passenger behavior could actually hamper the process: if travelers booked at 10 a.m. show up at 6 a.m., which may make sense for individuals, it adds to the pressure on this first wave of departures.
By mid-morning at airports with a very high proportion of short-haul flights – such as Stansted, Luton, Liverpool and Belfast City – queues have largely eased and remain generally manageable, although often with a bulge l ‘afternoon.
However, at airports with many long-haul flights, including Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester, mid-morning is a prime time for late morning intercontinental departures. There is also often an early evening bulge when people check in for overnight flights.
The best plan might be to pay for a fast-track security pass to get through the scanners faster – these cost £4 in Manchester, £5 in Stansted, £6 in Edinburgh. But keep in mind that airports cap the number they sell – you can’t rely on payment to speed up the process once you see how long the line is. (Dublin Airport suspended the sale of its fast-track passes last week amid a flurry of travelers trying to bypass queues.)
If you get stuck in a security queue and miss your flight, even through no fault of your own, the airlines have no legal obligation to help you. Some will allow you to transfer to a later flight if space is available, which unfortunately is increasingly unlikely. Travel insurance can help cover extra costs, if you can demonstrate that you did everything right, such as showing up early enough.
At Easter, some of Britain’s busiest intercity lines will be interrupted.
London Euston Station, the hub of the West Coast Main Line to the West Midlands, North West England, North Wales and South Scotland, will be completely closed from Good Friday to Easter Monday – April 15-18.
Trains on this line will instead start and end at Milton Keynes Central. Other sections of the West Coast Main Line will also be closed, including the Coventry-Birmingham line on April 16 and 17.
The Stansted Express, serving the UK’s third busiest airport, will be closed from Good Friday to Easter Monday, with rail replacement buses connecting Waltham Cross to Stansted Airport.
In the south of England, no trains will run from London Victoria to East Croydon – the main line to Gatwick Airport and Brighton. Alternative services will operate from London Bridge.
From the UK’s busiest station, London Waterloo, the line west of Staines will be closed. The route from Waterloo through Hampshire, Wiltshire, Somerset and Dorset to Exeter will be interrupted between Yeovil Junction and Honiton.
No trains will run between London Marylebone and Aylesbury Vale Parkway via Amersham.
Network Rail says: “An independent study carried out in 2016 into how the rail industry plans and schedules major improvement works concluded that Christmas, Easter and Bank Holidays are the best times for upgrades which require the closure of main lines.
Ahead of one of the busiest weekends of the year, DFDS Ferries has warned thousands of passengers who have booked with P&O Ferries that there will be no room for them on Friday, Saturday or Sunday.
P&O Ferries suspended its Dover-Calais crossings on March 17, after telling nearly 800 crew members that they had been made redundant immediately. P&O has since told passengers they can be carried on the services of DFDS – which sails from the Port of Kent to Calais and Dunkirk in northern France.
But DFDS tweeted yesterday: “DFDS has no availability for P&O customers between 8 April 00.01 and 10 April 23.59.
“Please do not proceed to port without a confirmed booking, contact P&O Ferries for alternative travel arrangements.”
Three large P&O Ferries ships are moored at the Dover cruise terminal, when they would normally provide a busy shuttle service to Calais and back. The operator hopes to sail two of them next week.
The rights of ferry passengers are much weaker than those of airline passengers. Under maritime passenger rights rules, ferry travelers whose crossings are canceled are entitled to a new journey.
The Department for Transport says: “If your ship is cancelled, or is more than 90 minutes late to depart, you can choose between:
- a new ticket to where you were going. This will leave as soon as possible. It will be a similar type of trip and will not cost more.
- or to collect your money for your ticket.
Last weekend, roads in east Kent were jammed as traffic queued up to access the port of Dover. The coming weekend should be even busier.
The misery of the road
An estimated 20.8 million leisure trips will be made by drivers this weekend as schools across the UK separate for the Easter holidays, new figures from the RAC suggest.
Saturday is likely to see the highest numbers on the roads – with some 5.6 million getaway trips expected – followed by Friday, the day many school terms end before Easter, when around 5 million trips will be made . An additional 5.6 million journeys are expected to be made at some point between Friday and late Sunday, with those drivers unsure which day they will be leaving.
To avoid traffic, avoid driving between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Friday (easier said than done) and between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. And avoid the M25, especially clockwise on the west side, and the A303 around Stonehenge.
Will the chaos continue all summer?
Road and rail? Yes. Airports and ferry ports? No. Although that is little comfort to families who are facing uncertainty at Easter over what could be their first holiday in two years.