July 3, 2022

Airport queues: Why are they so long and how long will the chaos last?

With the Easter weekend fast approaching, the UK’s international transport network is creaking badly.

Both British Airways and easyJet are cancelling dozens of flights every day – 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.

So what are the prospects for travellers this week and in the buildup to the Easter weekend – and what are your rights if it all goes wrong?

Flight cancellations

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.

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.

Airport delays

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 £5 at Manchester, £7 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.

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.

Train disruption

Over Easter, some of 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.”

Ferry changes

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 ahead of last weekend tweeted: “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 reservation, contact P&O Ferries for alternative travel arrangements.”

Ferry passengers’ rights are much weaker than those of 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.

Road misery

RAC spokesman Simon Williams said: “The most congestion on roads since before Covid is expected.

“It’s a bumper time for traffic as it is two years since people last had a holiday period without restrictions.

“People are far more willing to travel now, so will take the chance to have a break or see family and friends.”

Some of worst jams are expected on the M25 clockwise from Junction 8 to 16, the A303 at Stonehenge and the M5 in north Somerset.

Drivers planning getaways are advised to avoid peak travel hours if they want to dodge the worst jams.

Maundy Thursday afternoon and Good Friday daytime are typically busy periods at Easter.

Mr Williams said: “Think about the time of day you travel and try and drive when fewer other people will be driving. The earlier you leave in the morning, the better, and evenings see lower traffic volumes unless there has been a lot of daytime congestion.

“Allow extra time for journeys over the holiday period.”

Around 2,000 roadworks will be in place across the UK over Easter, RAC Route Planner roadwork trends showed. There will be also be 88 miles’ trunk route roadworks.

National Highways said the projects, which span 2 per cent of its network, would remain over Easter, with other works completed or suspended.

National Highways said: “We expect the roads to be busy with people making the most of the long weekend.”

Is chaos going to carry on through the summer?

Road and rail? Yes. Airports and ferry ports? Hopefully not. Though that is of little comfort to families who are facing uncertainty this Easter about what could be their first holiday for two years.

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