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Flight delays - latest: Richard Branson warns airlines will have to cough up compensation

The billionaire warned airlines would have to take payouts on the chin.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 29: Sir Richard Branson attends
Sir Richard Branson said airlines would have to pay compensation following the air traffic control failure. (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images)

Virgin Group boss Sir Richard Branson has warned that airlines will be on the hook for compensation payouts following the air traffic control failure that has left thousands of passengers stranded or delayed.

Speaking to Good Morning Britain on Wednesday, the billionaire said despite the failure coming from the National Air Traffic Services (Nats), airlines would have to take the payouts on the chin.

"I'm sure that airlines that have been affected... they will almost definitely have to pay compensation, and take it on the chin" he said. "But these things happen and hopefully Nats can learn from this and make sure they don't make the same mistake again."

His comments came as a flight expert has described the breakdown in the UK's air traffic control system as "staggering", after thousands of passengers were left stranded following a four-hour breakdown in the system on Monday.

Willie Walsh, director general of the International Air Transport Association (Iata), said the design of the system - which appeared to collapse after incorrect data was entered - was a "considerable weakness".

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: “I find it staggering, I really do.

“This system should be designed to reject data that’s incorrect, not to collapse the system.

“If that is true, it demonstrates a considerable weakness that must have been there for some time and I’m amazed if that is the cause of this.

“Clearly we’ll wait for the full evaluation of the problem but that explanation doesn’t stand up from what I know of the system.”

Read more:

We have paused live coverage of the travek chaos for the evening. For more updates click here

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How long will the disruption last?

Transport secretary Mark Harper said the travel disruption will last for days, with flights continuing to be cancelled on Wednesday morning.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Tuesday: "The last time there was something this significant was about a decade ago, so these things do not happen frequently.

"It is going to take some days to get completely everybody back to where they should be."

Aviation analytics company Cirium said 790 departures and 785 arrivals were cancelled across all UK airports following the initial breakdown on Monday, a total of 1,575 (about 27% of planned flights).

CRAWLEY, ENGLAND - AUGUST 28: People wait near check-in desks at Gatwick Airport on August 28, 2023 in Crawley, United Kingdom. The United Kingdom's air traffic control systems have grounded thousands of flights on one of the busiest travel days of the year. All flights to and from the UK are reported to be affected and delays could last for days. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
Passengers surround check-in desks at Gatwick Airport after flights were cancelled. (Getty Images)
Airplanes are grounded at London City Airport, in London, Monday, Aug. 28, 2023. Britain's air traffic control system says it is experiencing a
Aeroplanes grounded at London City Airport after an air traffic control fault led to hundreds of cancelled flights. (AP Photo)

At least 32 departures from Heathrow were cancelled on Tuesday, along with 31 arrivals. British Airways was the worst affected airline at the airport.

At least 23 departures and 51 arrivals were cancelled at Gatwick Airport on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, British Airways and easyJet were among those reporting cancellations on Wednesday morning as the chaos continued.

Can passengers get a refund?

Under UK law, if a flight is cancelled, the airline must let passengers choose between either a refund or an alternative flight, regardless of when the cancellation was made.

Passengers can get their money back for any part of the booking that was not used, so if they booked a return flight and the outbound journey was cancelled, they are entitled to the full cost of the return ticket.

If passengers still want to travel even if their flight is cancelled, their airline must find them an alternative flight. If another airline is flying sooner or other suitable modes of transport are available, they have the right to be booked on that instead.

Passengers look at the departures board at Heathrow Airport, in London, Monday, Aug. 28, 2023. Britain’s air traffic control system says it is experiencing a “technical issue” that could delay flights on Monday, the end of a holiday weekend and a busy day for air travel. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
A departures board at Heathrow Airport after a number of cancellations. (AP Photo)
CRAWLEY, ENGLAND - AUGUST 28: People wait near check-in desks at Gatwick Airport on August 28, 2023 in Crawley, United Kingdom. The United Kingdom's air traffic control systems have grounded thousands of flights on one of the busiest travel days of the year. All flights to and from the UK are reported to be affected and delays could last for days. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
Passengers queue up near check-in desks at Gatwick Airport after hundreds of flights were cancelled. (Getty Images)

If stuck abroad or at an airport because a flight is cancelled, airlines must provide a reasonable amount of food and drinks, usually in the form of vouchers, as well as free accommodation if passengers have to stay overnight to fly the next day.

If their airline cannot assist with this, passengers should make their own arrangements and keep their receipts to claim back the cost later.

Airlines are required to pay compensation if flights arrive more than three hours late, but only when it is their fault, meaning the air traffic control problems could fall under the definition of “exceptional circumstances”, meaning the carriers are exempt from paying out.

Watch: Air traffic control review ordered with disruption to 'last for days'