What’s the problem at Gatwick Airport and which flights will be cancelled

Power tower: easyJet Airbus passes Gatwick airport control tower (Nats)
Power tower: easyJet Airbus passes Gatwick airport control tower (Nats)

In an unprecedented move, Gatwick Airport has ordered airlines to cancel dozens of flights because of sickness among air-traffic controllers – which is currently running at 30 per cent of the available staff.

Cancellations, diversions and delays have happened frequently this month due to staff shortage at Nats, which runs the control tower.

Aircraft movements will be capped at 800 per day at the Sussex airport, which normally has the busiest runway in the world.

Gatwick airport says: “The daily cap will prevent last-minute cancellations and delays for passengers while Nats work through challenges driven by sickness and staffing constraints.

As the biggest airline at Gatwick, easyJet will bear the brunt of the cancellations. British Airways, Tui, Vueling and Wizz Air are expected to be among other carriers whose schedules will be affected.

The airlines will lose revenue and must pay for customer care, even though the cull is beyond their control.

The Independent estimates that 25,000 passengers will be notified in the next few days that their flights have been cancelled.

These are the key questions and answers.

What’s the problem that needs solving at Gatwick?

For weeks sickness among air-traffic control staff employed by Nats at the Sussex airport has intermittently triggered a slowdown in the “flow rate” of arrivals at, and departures from, the busiest runway in the world. The latest problem is an outbreak of Covid.

With fewer flights able to land, disruption quickly takes hold – with cancellations, diversions and delays increasing as the day goes on.

The economic and emotional price of such disruption is high: costing airlines hundreds of thousands of pounds in passenger care, and wrecking holiday, family and business trips.

To try to reduce the chaos caused by on-the-day cancellations, Gatwick has imposed a cap of 800 movements (arrivals and departures) per day. That is the maximum number that the airport believes can be comfortably handled given the current staffing challenges.

Gatwick has imposed a cap of 800 movements (arrivals and departures) per day (Getty)
Gatwick has imposed a cap of 800 movements (arrivals and departures) per day (Getty)

What impact will the cap have?

The expected movements on Tuesday and Saturday, 26 and 30 September, are 800 movements – so no cancellations are anticipated.

On other days the excess is as follows:

  • Wednesday 27 September: 29

  • Thursday 28 September: 40

  • Friday 29 September: 65

  • Sunday 1 October: 30

The total is 164 movements, which corresponds to 82 round-trips from Gatwick. It represents about 3 per cent of the normal operation.

Assuming an average load of 150 passengers per affected flight, around 25,000 passengers will shortly learn their flights have been cancelled.

How will the cancellations be chosen?

Airlines will be told how many flights they must take out of their schedules on each day when the cap applies. After that, it is down to the carrier to decide which flights to cancel. They are likely to be chosen on the basis of:

  • Availability of alternative flights: if an airline has multiple daily departures to a particular destination, and space available for rebooked passengers, the effect of the cancellation can be minimised.

  • Revenue protection: flights which are heavily booked at high fares are less likely to be cancelled than those for which relatively few seats have been sold and average fares are low.

When will I find out if my flight is grounded?

Airlines are likely to calculate which flights to cancel in date order: so Wednesday’s cancellations are likely to be announced on Tuesday afternoon, with later dates following.

What are my options if my flight is cancelled?

Under European air passengers’ rights rules, airlines that cancel flights for any reason must provide alternative transport as soon as possible.

If, for example, easyJet cancels a flight from Gatwick to Rome, and has no other availability to the Italian capital on the day of travel, passengers can ask to be rebooked on British Airways from Heathrow or Ryanair from Stansted.

Should a hotel stay be necessary, the airline is required to book and pay for rooms, as well as meals, until the passenger reaches their destination.

Passengers whose trips are rendered pointless by a cancellation can obtain a full refund for the affected flight. If another leg (outbound or inbound) has been booked on the same ticket, it is refundable too even if that flight goes ahead.

Can I claim compensation?

No, since these enforced cancellations are clearly beyond the airline’s control.

Will everything be back to normal by next Monday?

That is the hope. But airline sources say they are concerned about by the general lack of resilience in the control tower at Gatwick. It is believed that 40 days have been affected by staff shortage since the beginning of the summer.

Why are so many air-traffic controllers off sick at Gatwick?

As mentioned, currently 30 per cent of air-traffic controllers who are qualified to work in the control tower at Gatwick are off sick, some with Covid. Many people have questioned why the absence rate is so high.

One reason: the extremely stringent conditions for an air-traffic controller to report for work. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) says controllers must not be at work when “unfit to perform the duties due to injury, fatigue, sickness, stress, including critical incident stress or other similar causes” or when they are “under the influence of psychoactive substances”.

The term “psychoactive substances” includes some over-the-counter medicines that may be used to treat common ailments.

The CAA defines psychoactive substances as “alcohol, opioids, cannabinoids, sedatives and hypnotics, cocaine, other psychostimulants, hallucinogens and volatile solvents”. Caffeine and tobacco are specifically excluded.

“Alcohol impairs performance at any level and the impairment increases exponentially with the amount taken,” the CAA says. “Many medicines, whether prescribed by a doctor or obtained ‘over the counter’ or by other means (e.g. over the internet) and illicit drugs also impair performance.

“In the short term (minutes to hours) judgement and decision-making will be affected, there will be an increase in errors and risk-taking behaviour, mood changes, poor co-ordination, tracking and concentration and slow reaction times.

“Some effects can persist for several days, particularly poor balance and slow cognition.”