With Easter school holidays getting under way for many families across the UK, the international transport network is creaking badly.
BA’s cancellations are short-haul operations from Heathrow, while easyJet’s main base, Gatwick, is seeing the highest number of axed departures for the airline.
Hundreds more cancellations of domestic and European flights are expected before and during the Easter weekend.
If your flight is going ahead, then there’s the airport to contend with. The managing director of Manchester airport has stepped down after weeks of extremely long queues for security at the UK’s third-busiest airport.
Meanwhile motorists hoping to sail over from Dover this weekend are set to experience more gridlock.
The RAC says to avoid the M25 around London and A303 near Stonehenge this weekend. And looking further ahead, if you plan to spend Easter in the UK, one of the key inter-city routes will be largely closed.
So what are the prospects for travellers this week and in the build-up to 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 – do not seem to be having problems.
Regardless of the cause, the standard rule when a flight is cancelled – as defined by the Civil Aviation Authority – is that you are entitled to travel on the original day of departure.
If the cancelling airline cannot get you there on its own planes, and a seat is available on another carrier’s flight, it must pay for your trip on its rival airline. This is entirely separate from cash compensation, which is intended to make up for inconvenience rather than pay for alternative transport.
Looking at Thursday’s grounded 7.35am British Airways flight from Heathrow to Milan Malpensa, for example, BA can put you on the 11.30am flight on the same route. It will also have to pay £220 in compensation under air passengers’ rights rules.
If the cancellation happens while you are at the airport, you are also due “a reasonable amount of food and drink” depending on the length of the delay.
For easyJet’s cancelled Thursday morning flight from Gatwick to Kefalonia, the airline will need to spend hundreds of pounds getting you there. It has no other services on the route, and indeed it has cancelled the only link from the UK to the beautiful Aegean island that whole day.
The alternative is a flight to Athens, an overnight stay at an airport hotel, meals and an onward domestic flight. Plus, of course, the compensation. This is ferociously expensive for the airline – but also extremely inconvenient for passengers.
UK airports have seen passenger numbers in the past two years dip to 5 per cent of pre-pandemic levels – with some falling to zero. With hindsight and limitless cash, aviation would have kept the tens of thousands of experienced (and security-cleared) staff who left the industry during the coronavirus pandemic.
One strategy is to turn up ridiculously early – for example, at 3am for a 7am flight (though if you are checking baggage, you will need to ensure your airline’s check-in desk will be open).
At leading holiday airport Gatwick, North Terminal security opens at 2am and South Terminal at 3.30am. Checkpoints at Heathrow generally open at 4am.
But for the first wave of flights, numbers build up very quickly – by 5.30am, many UK airports are very busy.
Passenger behaviour could actually hinder the process: if travellers booked at 10am turn up at 6am, which may be logical for individuals, it adds to the pressure on that first wave of departures.
By mid-morning at airports with a very large proportion of short-haul flights – such as Stansted, Luton, Liverpool and Belfast City – queues have largely eased, and generally stay manageable, though often with an afternoon bulge.
At airports with many long-haul flights, though, including Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester, mid-morning is 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 could be to pay for a security fast-track pass to get you more speedily through the scanners – these cost £4 at Manchester, £5 at Stansted, £6 at Edinburgh. But bear in mind that airports cap the number they sell – you can’t rely on paying to accelerate the process once you see just how long the line is. (Dublin airport suspended the sale of its fast-track passes last week amid a flurry of travellers attempting to beat the queues.)
If you are stuck in a security queue and miss your flight, even through no fault of your own, airlines have no legal obligation to help you. Some will allow you to transfer to a later flight if there is any space available, which sadly is increasingly unlikely. Travel insurance may help meet additional costs, if you can demonstrate you did everything right, showing up early enough for example.
Over Easter, some of Great Britain’s busiest inter-city lines will be disrupted.
London Euston station, hub for the West Coast main line to the West Midlands, northwest England, north Wales and southern Scotland, will be completely closed from Good Friday to Easter Monday – 15 to 18 April.
Trains on this line will instead start and end at Milton Keynes Central. Other stretches of the West Coast main line will also be closed, including the Coventry-Birmingham line on 16 and 17 April.
The Stansted Express, serving the UK’s third-busiest airport, will be closed from Good Friday to Easter Monday, with rail replacement buses running from Waltham Cross to Stansted airport.
In southern England, no trains will run from London Victoria to East Croydon – the main line to Gatwick airport and Brighton. Alternative services will run 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 review in 2016 looking at how the rail industry plans and schedules major improvement work concluded that Christmas, Easter and bank holidays are the best times for upgrades that need major lines to be closed.”
P&O Ferries suspended its Dover-Calais sailings on 17 March, after telling nearly 800 crew they had been made redundant immediately. P&O has since been telling passengers they can be carried on the services of DFDS – which sails from the Kent port to Calais and Dunkirk in northern France.
But DFDS yesterday tweeted: “DFDS has no availability for P&O customers between 08 April 00.01 and 10 April 23.59.
“Please do not proceed to port without a confirmed reservation, contact P&O Ferries for alternative travel arrangements.”
Three large P&O Ferries vessels are tied up at Dover’s cruise terminal, when normally they would be running a busy shuttle service to Calais and back. The operator hopes to sail two of them from next week.
Ferry passengers’ rights are much weaker than airline travellers’. Under maritime passenger rights rules, ferry travellers whose sailings are cancelled are entitled to a new journey.
The Department for Transport says: “If your ship is cancelled, or if it is more than 90 minutes late to leave, you can choose between:
- a new ticket to the place you were going. This will leave as soon as possible. It will be a similar type of travel and will not cost extra.
- or to get your money back for your ticket.”
Last weekend the roads of east Kent were gridlocked as traffic queued to access the port of Dover. The coming weekend is expected to be even busier.
An estimated 20.8m leisure trips will be taken by drivers this weekend as schools across the UK break up for the Easter holidays, new figures from the RAC suggest.
Saturday is likely to see the greatest numbers on the roads – with some 5.6m getaway journeys expected – followed by Friday, the day when many school terms finish ahead of Easter, when around 5m trips will be taken. An additional 5.6m trips are predicted to be taken at some point between Friday and the end of Sunday, with these drivers unsure on exactly which day they’ll go away.
To beat the traffic, avoid driving between 11am and 7pm on Friday (easier said than done) and 11am and 3pm on Saturday and Sunday. And avoid the M25, especially clockwise on the western side, and the A303 in the Stonehenge vicinity.
Is chaos going to carry on through the summer?
Road and rail? Yes. Airports and ferry ports? No. Though that is of little comfort to families who are facing uncertainty this Easter about what could be their first holiday for two years.