Covid flight cancellations are back as thousands grounded after virus hits Gatwick air-traffic controllers

Covid flight cancellations are back as thousands grounded after virus hits Gatwick air-traffic controllers

An outbreak of Covid has been blamed for the third air-traffic control slowdown at London Gatwick so far this month.

Staff sickness in the control tower meant the “flow rate” of flights using the world’s busiest runway was reduced.

Fifty flights to and from the Sussex airport were cancelled or diverted, while many other services were delayed by up to seven hours.

An estimated 8,000 passengers were left out of position. Once again, easyJet made the vast majority of cancellations: a total of 42.

Eight flights were grounded between Gatwick and Belfast – six to and from the Northern Ireland capital’s International airport, and two serving Belfast City.

Multiple cancellations were also made on easyJet links with Edinburgh, Geneva and Paris CDG.

Daniel Wilkes, a consultant psychiatrist from Angus, was booked on the 7.15pm flight from Gatwick to Edinburgh. It was cancelled at 8.40pm.

He told The Independent: “I just can’t believe the lack of contingency planning from Nats for staff sickness and that this is happening again.

“Plus, airports and airlines have had quite a while to firm up their processes for cancellations, and yet always the poorly managed scrum ensues. Bizarrely, we were made to exit through border control. I didn’t even have my passport as it was a domestic flight.”

Dr Wilkes switched to a Monday morning easyJet flight from London Stansted to Edinburgh, which he reached by Uber at a price of £100 and booked a hotel at the Essex airport for an additional £159. “Fingers crossed [the airline] pays,” he said.

Another easyJet passenger, nurse Katie Williams, was one of hundreds affected by the cancellation of six flights between Gatwick and Amsterdam. She found an alternative flight home on British Airways, but at a fare of £666.

Under air passengers’ rights rules, easyJet is required to cover the cost of accommodation and additional transport when a flight is cancelled – regardless of the reason for the flight being grounded.

An easyJet spokesperson said: “We are extremely disappointed that customers are once again being impacted by this and while this is outside of our control, we are sorry for the inconvenience caused to our customers.

“We are doing all possible to minimise the impact of the disruption and have notified those on cancelled flights of their options to rebook or receive a refund and are providing hotel accommodation and meals where required.”

A London Gatwick spokesperson said: “Due to short notice sickness in the air-traffic control tower including cases of Covid-19, temporary air traffic control restrictions were put in place yesterday. This caused some delays and cancellations by airlines.

“We worked hard to minimise disruption and we apologise for any inconvenience. The air-traffic control tower is fully staffed this morning.”

A spokesperson for Nats said: “We very much regret that some passengers experienced delays at Gatwick yesterday. This was due to short-notice staff sickness including some incidences of Covid.

“We did all we could to minimise disruption, working closely with the airport and airlines.

“We have worked very hard to increase the number of controllers, but it will take some time to build full resilience. It does mean, though, that short notice absences may lead to air-traffic control regulations being applied in order to maintain safety, and we are all very sorry for the impact this has.”

The Spanish budget airline Vueling cancelled six flights, to and from Barcelona, Bilbao and Paris Orly.

In addition, an easyJet flight from Ljubljana was diverted to Luton, while SkyExpress from Athens touched down in Zurich.