Drones or none, December is not a risk-free time for travellers

Plane Talk: It is right that airlines bear the brunt of this week’s travel chaos but passengers, perhaps, should also adjust expectations 

Simon Calder
Saturday 22 December 2018 18:36
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Gatwick drones: airport reopens after three days of flight delays cause Christmas travel chaos

Though we share a fondness for the Canary Islands, I have never met Ruth Knudsen.

I heard her talking to Stephen Nolan on BBC Radio 5 Live from Tenerife on Friday night. She was not intending still to be on the largest of the Canary Islands, but – along with 150,000 other travellers – her travel plans were torn up by the closure of Gatwick airport.

As you may know, departures and arrivals on the world’s busiest runway were halted for 33 hours between Wednesday night and Friday morning after drones intruded on the airfield.

Ms Knudsen was booked to fly back on easyJet on Friday. But many of the airline’s Gatwick-based planes had been scattered to the four corners of the kingdom during the Wednesday night diversions. Hers was one of the 50-plus flights cancelled after the runway reopened while easyJet positioned its aircraft back to Sussex.

As a place to be stranded on midwinter’s day, the largest of the Canary Islands beats an overcrowded concourse at Gatwick. But her description of the circumstances matched my previous experiences of cancelled flights.

“The communication has been very, very poor and it’s very unsettling,” Ms Knudsen told the presenter.

I imagine you could add “confusing” and “exhausting” to those descriptions.

But some other aspects of the interview surprised me.

“We were herded from one place to another to another,” she said, describing how staff dealt with the 150 passengers who needed overnight accommodation. “It was handled very badly.”

The airline is paying for the hotel and Ms Knudsen’s meals, but she said: “I felt kind of dumped in this hotel, really, a whole crowd of us last night.”

Yet from the perspective of easyJet staff, I think the unfortunate situation looks rather different. In a difficult day, they had to organise hotel rooms for a planeload of people, and the coaches to transport the passengers. They achieved both aims. While I have no doubt that a brisker pace and better communication would have improved things, I wonder if travellers need to adjust their expectations?

Ms Knudsen was offered easyJet flights to Luton or Southend on Sunday, or to Gatwick on Monday. She chose Luton, and told 5 Live: “I’m not getting a flight back to Gatwick where my car is.

“I was told I won’t get transportation back from Luton.”

Without wishing to sound harsh, I would categorise that as a first-world problem. The train between Luton Airport Parkway and Gatwick takes 76 minutes and, assuming Ms Knudsen has a Senior Railcard (she broadcast to the world that she was in her sixties), the fare will be £9.50. Which, if she tries retrospectively, she can probably claim back, adding to easyJet’s losses of around £6m. This figure has been accrued partly through the “care costs” of looking after stranded passengers like Ms Knudsen, and partly through the loss of revenue from what should have been ultra-lucrative flights.

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Diversions are also fearsomely expensive. On the same night, a WestJet flight from Toronto diverted to Glasgow, tried to fly on to Gatwick, but was beaten back to Scotland by the temporary reclosure of the airport.

While I don’t expect you to “pity the poor airline”, bear in mind that ultimately the passenger pays.

As Tim Jeans, former boss of Monarch and chairman of Newquay airport, said on the same programme: “That would have cost thousands and thousands of pounds, but nothing is for free.

“Eventually that will ripple through in the form of higher fares.”

This is an excellent time to escape the depths of the northern winter, and Tenerife’s proximity to the Tropics makes it bright and warm rather than bleak and cold. But experience shows that late December is not a risk-free spell for airlines – and passengers. Adjust your expectations accordingly.

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