Gatwick Airport is forcing airlines to cancel dozens of flights for the rest of the week because of staff shortages in air-traffic control blamed on Covid.
The airport is imposing a daily cap on the number of flights until Sunday – a move that will see tens of thousands of passengers delayed, cancelled or diverted to other airports.
It is the third air-traffic control slowdown at the airport so far this month, with easyJet being the airline most affected.
Almost one-third of staff in the control tower at Gatwick – the world’s busiest single-runway airport – are unable to work “for a variety of medical reasons including Covid” leading to a reduced “flow rate” of flights.
More than 40 flights were cancelled over the weekend, and now the airport has limited airlines to a total of 800 takeoffs and landings a day.
This is much lower than the planned 840 on Thursday, 865 on Friday, and 830 on Sunday.
Stewart Wingate, chief executive of Gatwick, said: “This has been a difficult decision but the action we have taken today means our airlines can fly reliable flight programmes, which gives passengers more certainty that they will not face last-minute cancellations.
“We are working closely with Nats to build resilience in the control tower, and this decision means we can prevent as much disruptions as possible. London Gatwick would like to apologise to any passengers who have been impacted by these restrictions.”
By far the largest number of cancellations will be on easyJet – by far the largest airline at Gatwick.
Johan Lundgren, chief executive of easyJet, said: “While it is regrettable that a temporary limit on capacity at Gatwick airport is required, we believe that it is the right action by the airport so on-the-day cancellations and delays can be avoided.
“Gatwick airport and Nats now need to work on longer term plan so the resilience of air-traffic control at Gatwick is improved and fit for purpose.
“Our call for a more wide-ranging review of Nats remains so the broader issues can be examined so it can deliver robust services to passengers now and in the future.”
In a statement, Nats said: “We have worked very closely with Gatwick airport throughout. Given the levels of sickness we have experienced over the last few weeks we believe it is the responsible thing to do to limit the number of flights this week in order to reduce the risk of daily disruption to passengers using the airport.
“With 30 per cent of tower staff unavailable for a variety of medical reasons including Covid, we cannot manage the number of flights that were originally planned for this week.
“Our operational resilience in the tower will improve as our staff return to work and we move out of the summer schedule, which is particularly busy at Gatwick.
“We continue to train additional air traffic controllers and expect another group to qualify to work in the tower over coming months, ready for next summer.
“Even an experienced air traffic controller takes at least nine months to qualify at Gatwick and very few are able to do so, as Gatwick is such a busy and complex air traffic environment.”
Daniel Wilkes, a consultant psychiatrist from Angus, was booked on the 7.15pm flight from Gatwick to Edinburgh. It was cancelled at 8.40pm.
He told The Independent: “I just can’t believe the lack of contingency planning from Nats for staff sickness and that this is happening again.
“Plus, airports and airlines have had quite a while to firm up their processes for cancellations, and yet always the poorly managed scrum ensues. Bizarrely, we were made to exit through border control. I didn’t even have my passport as it was a domestic flight.”
Dr Wilkes switched to a Monday morning easyJet flight from London Stansted to Edinburgh, which he reached by Uber at a price of £100 and booked a hotel at the Essex airport for an additional £159. “Fingers crossed [the airline] pays,” he said.
Another easyJet passenger, nurse Katie Williams, was one of hundreds affected by the cancellation of six flights between Gatwick and Amsterdam. She found an alternative flight home on British Airways, but at a fare of £666.
Under air passengers’ rights rules, easyJet is required to cover the cost of accommodation and additional transport when a flight is cancelled – regardless of the reason for the flight being grounded.
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