Huge rise in air delays and passenger complaints

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The Independent Online

British air travellers are spending record amounts of time sitting in departure lounges waiting for delayed flights and grappling with missing baggage and cancellations, two studies claimed yesterday.

As millions of holidaymakers join the August exodus abroad, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) reported an eight-fold increase in the length of delays for charter flights and a 300 per cent rise for scheduled flights.

Coinciding with a consumer watchdog's report of a record high for complaints from travellers, the figures provide the strongest evidence yet that increased air travel is creating misery for passengers.

The number of scheduled flights arriving or departing from airports more than 15 minutes late rose by 5 per cent in the first three months of this year, reaching 29 per cent of all journeys, according to the CAA.

While charter flights' delays stayed at 41 per cent, the CAA said the average wait had increased from four minutes to 32 mins. For scheduled airlines it was up 12 mins to 17 mins.

The annual report of the passenger watchdog, the Air Transport Users Council (AUC), meanwhile recorded an 18 per cent increase in complaints from stressed travellers. It reported a 110 per cent rise in complaints about delays, a 53 per cent increase in protests about missing baggage, and a 124 per cent rise in complaints over cancelled flights.

Simon Evans, the AUC's chief executive, said: "We may be talking about a small proportion of the 160 million people who fly in and out of Britain every year but it is still a lot of inconvenience – the complaints show passengers are no longer prepared to put up with it. Air traffic control difficulties are a significant factor but there are issues about the efficiency of the operators and their lack of willingness to make their own performance figures known."

One London travel agent said: "We get more people coming back to us saying 'The holiday was great, it was just getting there that was the problem'. There is a real issue about making flying enjoyable again. Otherwise we're going to drive people away."

As well as an overall tally of just 71 per cent of scheduled flights and 59 per cent chartered flights arriving on time, the CAA highlighted wide variation in delays at Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton, City, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Newcastle.

Luton, home to the budget airline easyJet, was the worst performer with a fall from 75 per cent of scheduled aircraft arriving on time in the last quarter of 2000, to 58 per cent in January to March this year. The best airport was Birmingham with 78 per cent of scheduled flights arriving on time.

A spokeswoman for the British Airports Authority, which runs the four main London airports, and Glasgow, Edinburgh and Southampton, said: "We have not had a significant increase in delays for the last five years. Generally, delays and difficulties are outside the control of an airport. Weather, delays at other airports and operator difficulties, are the prime causes."

Charter flights, responsible for ferrying the majority of Britain's 20 million package holidaymakers, were the main source of passenger consternation, said the AUC. In the watchdog's league table for flights last summer, a newly founded travel firm, JMC, was found to have an average delay of 45 minutes, putting it one place behind Airtours with an average wait of 53 minutes. The worst performer was the Icelandic operator, Islandsflug, half of whose flights were delayed for an hour or more.

A record 860 complaints about lost baggage to the AUC was due to airlines being under no legal obligation to ensure passengers and their belongings arrived on the same aircraft, the watchdog said.

The AUC has also called for greater openness from airlines and industry operators, pointing out that no official figures on the number of cancellations are being made available to the public.

But a spokesman for the government's National Air Traffic Services said: "The average delay caused by traffic control is 90 seconds. We cannot let flights leave British airspace if there's no direct flight line available. Congestion is a problem ... we don't pretend there aren't delays but we are dealing with record numbers of aircraft."