Lessons Learned from the Summer of Travel Chaos

Luca Pavoni, Junior Consultant

This year saw a summer of chaos for British travellers. A miserably wet summer spoiled ‘staycations’ around the country; incessant rail strikes impeded access to airports; and treasured destinations from Greece to the Canary Islands went up in flames as wildfires waged across the continent.

As if that were not damaging enough, final hopes from the travel industry to salvage the embers of summer were extinguished by the UK’s worst air traffic control (ATC) failure in a decade, which hit on the August bank holiday weekend. 

Hundreds of thousands of passengers suffered severe delays and cancellations to their flights after the flight planning system used by the National Air Traffic Services (NATS) went offline on 28 August – the bank holiday Monday and incidentally the busiest day of the year.

According to NATS, just a single piece of wrongly inputted data was enough to trigger a system shutdown that cancelled more than 25% (approximately 2000) of inbound and outbound flights and sent shockwaves through the aviation and travel sector for the remainder of the summer holidays. 

Facing protracted and undefined delays, travellers faced the bleak choice of bidding hundreds of pounds on hotel rooms in short supply; sleeping on airport floors; or braving a convoluted journey back overseas via road, rail or ferry. An eighty-minute flight to Amsterdam, for example, became a 4-hour Eurostar train and then a 13-hour coach journey once the train tickets were rapidly sold out.

By the time the dust settled and flights finally resumed to normal days later, airlines had been slapped with more than £100 million of costs from cancelled flights, lost profits and compensation fees by the ATC failure, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). 

Now, questions are being raised over who should foot the bill.

When an airline carrier cancels a flight at short notice for any reason, it is automatically liable for providing the passenger with suitable alternative transport and paying for any required accommodation costs. This is true even when the airline has no power to prevent cancellations, like in the case of an ATC failure. 

This is a huge price tag for an industry still reeling from the pain of the pandemic, as well as ongoing crises like the war in Ukraine – which has cordoned off several Eurasian flight routes - and the cost-of-living crisis which threatens households’ disposable incomes and hampers the rate of return to pre-pandemic passenger numbers. 

Moreover, the fact that NATS – the body responsible for the £100-million-mistake – is not currently liable for any of these damages pours further salt in the wound for many passenger airlines.

Airline bosses are calling for reform. Michael O’Leary, Chief Executive of Ryanair, had a tough September after taking a pie to the face by protestors in Brussels just days after his company suffered large costs from the ATC failure. Though unperturbed by the pie, O’Leary has been vocal in criticising NATS, calling on their boss to resign, and demanding they pay the price of their mistakes: 

“We pay NATS over £100m a year in the UK alone, just Ryanair. Their total income is £750m. And it’s simply not acceptable that you have a complete computer failure.”

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the UK’s independent regulator for the industry, recently launched an investigation into the NATS failure that will question how one system glitch was able to cause so much destruction, and whether it is fair or proper that NATS be shielded from repercussions should it commit this error again. 

The Transport Secretary, Mark Harper, has so far walked the line on this question. In September, he met with airlines to assure them he will study the CAA report “with interest” and to thank them for their work to get operations back to normal. 

Harper’s strategy for the industry, published earlier this year, is principally tasked with a “return to business as usual for aviation”. Recognising the toll of recent “political and economic turbulence” (excuse his pun), Harper hopes deregulating parts of the industry and relaxing red tape like rules around airport slots will help nurse the aviation sector back to life post-pandemic.  

Harper has also reaffirmed the Government’s commitment towards ‘Jet Zero’, decarbonising the sector by 2050 through investment in low and zero emission aviation technologies.

While these steps are welcomed by the sector, airlines say there’s still more to go. Alongside calling for financial accountability for NATS, airlines would like to see further Government support for its modernisation and recruitment efforts, such as allowing overseas workers to help at British airports during peak periods and ensuring the aviation sector is added to the skilled worker visa shortage occupation list. This can prevent further delays caused by staffing shortages, seen as recently as last month at Gatwick Airport.

If the Government is serious about nursing the aviation industry back to life post-pandemic, it needs to be cognisant of the economic pressures faced by the industry and work collaboratively to ensure the green transition does not force undue costs to consumers or the collapse of flight operators. Doing so could accelerate the aviation sector’s journey back to normality, unlock the full potential of the £22 billion industry, and the opportunity to make Britain a global aviation hub.

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