Air traffic control delays in Europe are expected to bring further travel chaos to UK airports over the summer as rail passengers face the prospect of mounting disruption.
Europe’s air traffic agency has warned that the number of flights will exceed the capacity of control centres to handle them across large parts of the continent this summer, and urged some countries to review their operations to avoid sudden disruption.
The warning comes after British holidaymakers have faced more than a week of flight cancellations and delays as the aviation industry, hit by staff shortages, struggled to cope with a sharp rise in demand.
Rail passengers are also braced for disruption this summer with the RMT rail union set to meet on Tuesday to discuss calling a nationwide strike after their members at more than a dozen train operators and infrastructure manager Network Rail backed industrial action in a ballot last month.
There was some rail disruption on Sunday after Eurostar urged passengers not to travel after problems with overhead power lines in France led to disruption to its services. Meanwhile, London Underground urged commuters to avoid the capital’s metro system on Monday because of a strike by the RMT.
But it was air passengers who faced most of the problems over the weekend, which included more than 150 flight cancellations at London’s Gatwick airport.
The airport said 89 flights were cancelled on Saturday and a further 82 on Sunday, in part caused by air traffic control restrictions after poor weather across parts of Europe, which had compounded the industry-wide staffing problems.
EasyJet, Gatwick’s largest operator, cancelled 80 flights on Sunday, blaming “the ongoing challenging operating environment”.
Heathrow airport, the UK’s busiest, has asked airlines to cut passenger numbers at certain times of the day over the summer to ease queues in terminal buildings at check-in. The airport said it engaged with airlines “well in advance” to allow them to re-time or cancel some flights to “smooth the peaks” at check-in.
Meanwhile, the European air traffic control agency Eurocontrol warned in an update covering the six weeks to mid-July that some of the continent’s control centres would struggle to handle all the flights scheduled over that period.
“Some air navigation service providers need to review their plans as the capacity provided would not be sufficient to cope with the traffic demand,” the agency said.
It singled out air traffic control centres including Reims in eastern France, Munich and Athens as facing particularly acute problems, but added that much of Europe, including the UK, was operating close to capacity with little room for manoeuvre if there were unexpected problems.
“The coming six-week period is likely to be extremely challenging for most airports, with very high passenger demand putting strains [on] some of those airports resources,” the document warned.
But in a statement, the agency said that air traffic delays were averaging only three minutes per flight, less than in 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic hit. It added it was working with national traffic managers to minimise delays.
The warning came as the UK’s transport secretary Grant Shapps again blamed the aviation industry for the widespread chaos. He said some airlines had cut too many staff during the pandemic.
“The decisions as to whether or not to lay off in the end were airlines’ decisions. They clearly in the end, looking back, cut too far on that,” Shapps told the BBC.
Senior airline executives have argued that ministers ignored requests for sector specific jobs support to keep skilled workers in the industry after the furlough programme ended last year.
Shapps dismissed industry calls to loosen Brexit-related immigration rules so airlines could transfer staff in from their EU-based operations.