Is this the end of the great holiday getaway?

As Simon Patterson’s flight taxied towards the Heathrow terminal at 11am on Wednesday, its exasperated captain came on the intercom to warn passengers of yet another delay. For some unknown reason, the gantry used to unload passengers was not ready. 

The flight had been due to leave Austin, Texas at 6.20pm the evening before and finally took off about two hours late. Passengers were still checking in at 7.30pm as check-in staff battled with a queue that snaked out of the terminal building. 

“The captain sounded dejected,” Patterson says. It was almost as though the pilot wondered if he ever wanted to fly again. “He said: ‘In my 17 years of flying, I can’t believe it has come to this’.”

After around 30 minutes sitting on the tarmac, Patterson and his fellow passengers finally managed to disembark. At which point, British Airways staff thrust a note about his onward journey to Dublin into his hands.

“Due to the late arrival of your BA flight to London Heathrow today, we have proactively rebooked your connecting flight,” the note read.

What initiative, thought Patterson, a freelance journalist who was returning from covering the latest round of the motorcycling MotoGP championship Circuit of the Americas.

But there was a snag with BA’s “proactivity”. The airline had booked him on exactly the same flight he was due to get anyway – one at that very moment taxi-ing out to the runway, which he had no chance of boarding.

Tempers have frayed as families, many going abroad for the first time in two years, had flights cancelled at short notice this Easter. Others have been unable to get to the gate in time, despite turning up hours in advance.

Social media has been awash with images of long queues trailing outside terminal buildings, stampedes as security gates are opened and scuffles over baggage trays in the last two weeks. Meanwhile, more than 1,300 flights have been cancelled since the start of the Easter holidays and prices for future school holidays are soaring.

For airline and airport bosses whose businesses were plunged into their “worst ever crisis” by the pandemic, the opening up of Britain’s borders this Easter has been an unmitigated disaster.

Critics argue it is a hell of their own making after too many jobs were slashed during lockdown.

British Airways cut 10,000 jobs during the pandemic. EasyJet culled 4,500 positions, Ryanair and Virgin Atlantic around 3,000 each. Airports made many thousands more redundant. And Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary and an amateur pilot, last week fanned the flames further when he accused the travel industry of failing to “gear up” for the Easter break.

Wherever the blame lies, the ugly scenes speak for themselves. “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail”, so the proverb goes. Airlines, airports, regulators and the Government all seem to have been found wanting. And the blame game has only just begun.

‘It’s not been as bad as this for a long time’

Airlines have not been overly apologetic despite the misery facing holidaymakers up and down the country.

Easyjet sought to placate critics by insisting that its operations were running at 94pc of the planned schedule. Easyjet said last week that it had achieved this performance “despite the recent increase in the number of crew testing positive of Covid-19, together with normal operational disruption such as weather and [air traffic controller] delays”.

But Paul Charles, a travel industry veteran and the founder of consultancy PC Agency, reckons customers are not in a forgiving mood.

“It’s not been as bad as this for a long time,” he says. “The last time you saw so many cancellations was because of snow at Christmas, at Heathrow back in 2012. It really hasn’t been as bad for about 10 years. 

“The other time you saw so many cancellations was the Icelandic earthquake ash cloud back in 2010.”

Michael O’Leary, the boss of low-cost airline Ryanair, rarely minces his words when it comes to the topic of customer service.

He once said: “People say the customer is always right, but you know what – they’re not. Sometimes they are wrong and they need to be told so.”





Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary

Though he may have softened this approach in recent years, O’Leary – one of the world’s most successful airline executives – is not convinced that things are as bad as some have made out.

“It is not chaos. It is an uncomfortable experience,” he tells The Telegraph.

“If you’re one of those passengers who are suffering flight cancellations with easyJet or BA, it’s an uncomfortable experience if you’re stuck for two hours in Manchester, but it is getting better and it will get resolved.

“It will get solved in the next two or three weeks as airports add more security staffing.”

 Whether chaotic or not, all those involved seem to agree the scenes at airports this Easter have been driven by staffing shortages. Reports abound of long queues snaking through terminals, with security desks that could relieve the pressure left unmanned.

Michelle and Robert Donohue, from Skelmersdale, Lancashire, and their 12-year-old son were among many families caught up in the turmoil.

They had planned to get to Manchester airport four hours early for their 7.15am Ryanair flight on April 5 to Rome.

The queues for security were long, but moving. Still, they thought they had plenty of time.

Michelle told news website LancsLive: “One lady had come and taken a big group of us and moved us and then we stopped, and she was on her radio and then she said ‘the place I was going to move you to is closed now’. We were like: ‘Where do we go?’





Passengers have suffered hours of delays at Manchester airport

“They opened a lane for us, then people started pushing past people, my husband ended up getting dragged back to about four or five people. People were just in a bit of a panic and then we got to that security line and it just stopped, it seemed like hours and hours and hours.

“It was getting closer and closer to the time but I could see where you put all your stuff on the trays so all we needed to do now was get through there – but it stopped again. Apparently people were over-pilling trays and stopping the whole conveyor belt.”

Michelle and her family were finally called forward as their flight was 20 minutes from departing,

“I showed my boarding pass and he let us through and then we went into another queue just for the trays so that it was four people deep and then there were four lines for one,” she said.

“People were pushing past and this little old man swung forward onto the trays; my poor son was panicking.”

Despite the Donohues’ best efforts, they didn’t make it to the gate on time and their flight left without them.

‘Simply a lack of staff’

Charles boils the problems down to a central issue. “There’s simply a lack of staff, a shortage of resources caused by Covid and not being able to hire enough people fast enough,” he says.

“Chief executives had started the hiring process back in October last year, they were more confident. They started hiring and then Omicron hit. Omicron made them freeze their plans.

“Omicron wasn’t as bad as expected. The rebound happened faster, but the hiring wasn’t able to pick up as quickly as the rebound. And that’s why they are where they are.”

Alison FitzGerald, chief operating officer at London City Airport, says that repeated Covid waves had caused massive disruption to recruitment.

“One of the things that we would ordinarily do as an airport for this summer, [is that] we would have started our recruitment process at the back end of last year, that’s a fairly standard process for us,” she says.

“That gives you the opportunity to do recruitment days, sift out the right calibre [of applicants] that you’re looking for, and then you start to do those background checks. All those things that take time, to give you the best possible chance to be ready for Easter.

“But travel wasn’t travel at the back end of last year. There was so much uncertainty. it was only really reviewed at the end of February.”





London City Airport is a stone’s throw from Canary Wharf

FitzGerald, a former executive at the Financial Times, says it was difficult to commit to a hiring spree before the travel restrictions were finally lifted. This happened little more than eight weeks before the start of the Easter break.

The industry was frustrated by what it considered to be repeated flip-flopping by Government ministers over travel restrictions. Travel corridors were erected then taken down; traffic light systems established, but changed at the last minute. Passenger locator forms for arrivals into the UK were introduced late on, and then not dropped until just weeks ago.

“It’s a very difficult decision to stay to start recruiting ahead of those things becoming certain, especially given what we’ve all experienced in the last couple of years,” FitzGerald says.

Another airport director agrees. “In January we were all terrified about Omicron. Christmas had nearly been cancelled,” they say.

“If you wanted to travel abroad you had to do several expensive tests. Few people would travel in those conditions.

“Roll the tape forward three months and passenger numbers are now three times what they were back then. More people are travelling now than at any point in the last two years.

“That is unbelievably fast growth – which is great for the industry, but no one can recruit quickly enough.”

O’Leary says: “It’s Manchester and Heathrow that are the two big problem children.

“[The aviation sector] is doing a reasonably good job in very difficult circumstances. We’re dealing with a typical situation recovering from a two year pandemic which none of us have ever had any experience of before.

He adds: “You can’t staff the [airports] quickly for a combination of reasons.”

A long-time critic of Brexit, O’Leary claims that a shortage of blue-collar workers has partly6 been driven by new rules which have made labour markets on the Continent more difficult to access.

“Even when you do hire these people, you now have these ludicrous backgrounds, security checks that are taking the border that are taking the Plod two or three months to get background security checks down,” he says.

 Unlike other parts of the hospitality market, huge numbers of airport staff have to go through security clearance.

Airside passes, which effectively give holders access-all-areas to an airport, require a strict referencing and counterterrorism vetting process that typically takes between 14 and 15 weeks to complete.

But with a flood of applications as airlines seek to expand following their Covid firing sprees, industry insiders say that waiting times have surged. Some applications are taking twice as long as normal to process, they say.

The volume of people applying for security clearance is only one facet of the problem. Part of the process requires applicants to provide five years of employment history. Any gaps would typically be a red flag and require further inspection.

Covid has complicated matters because many applicants, quite justifiably, have been out of work during the pandemic.

The situation has become so acute that operators are seeking to poach staff with security clearance from rivals. Last week British Airways began offering a £1,000 “welcome bonus” to prospective cabin crew who had an airside pass and could start work by July.

EasyJet found itself in a somewhat farcical row over the impact of the delays to security clearance last week.

Johan Lundgren, easyJet’s Swedish chief executive, initially appeared to lay the blame for flight cancellations at the door of the Government, which oversees the vetting process.

“In terms of the vetting thing [process], it is true that we have a lag of about 100 people today that are awaiting ID clearance in that process with DfT [the Department for Transport]. I reckon that there is a delay that is roughly three weeks,” he told journalists. 

“Clearly, if we would have had some of these people we would have seen less cancellations.”

A spokesman for the airline effectively retracted Lundgren’s comments hours later. “DfT vetting was not responsible for any cancellations. We do not blame the Government,” they said.





EasyJet chief Johan Lundgren at Gatwick airport

As if to ram the point home, the Cabinet Office then issued a denial of its own.

A spokesman said:  “There are absolutely no delays to security vetting of applicants. It is wrong to suggest otherwise and we are prioritising vetting applications from the aviation industry,” a Whitehall spokesman proclaimed. “It is for the aviation industry to manage resourcing at airports and staff absences, especially at busy times of the year.”

 The reason that BA and easyJet have been the worst affected by cancellations is straightforward, on the surface at least. They are among the busiest players. The former is the nation’s flag carrier, the latter flies the most flights out of the UK.

BA’s cancellation count also includes long-haul flights that fell victim to tightening Covid restrictions in China and Hong Kong, and to a ban on flying over Russia since the start of the Ukrainian invasion.

EasyJet is a different matter. Claims that up to a fifth of its staff at some bases were off work with Covid raised eyebrows among competitors such as Ryanair, Jet2 and Wizz Air – all of which were not forced into the same number of cancellations.

O’Leary says: “They’re kind of dressing it up a little bit as Covid sickness. We all have Covid sickness.”

Lundgren and Stephen Hester, the chairman of the easyJet board, have come under pressure from City investors over the last six months to arrest a poorly performing share price compared with rivals that are listed on the London Stock Exchange.

Hester is well-accustomed to dealing with sticky situations. He took over from Fred “the Shred” Goodwin as chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland, owner of Natwest, in the years that followed the credit crunch.

The pair’s strategy was clear – ramp up operations markedly in 2022 to take advantage of the “pent-up” demand among households to jet off abroad for the first time in two years.

Competitors claim that easyJet may simply have over-reached in scaling up its business at the behest of shareholders – and to the detriment of customers.

Lundgren denies this. “To think that we would be over ambitious, and therefore jeopardising the operation; that would just not be true,” he said last week.

‘It feels like we have turned back the clocks’

On Mar 18, the UK became one of the first countries in the Western world to drop all Covid border restrictions.

“I said we wouldn’t keep travel measures in place for any longer than necessary, which we’re delivering on today – providing more welcome news and greater freedom for travellers ahead of the Easter holidays,” Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, said at the time.

But relaxation of the rules has done little to alleviate the chaos because many other countries still demand rigorous checks.

Heathrow airport, for instance, estimates that 50pc of its destinations require some kind of Covid documentation before flying.

“Automated check-in, which would have been available to most passengers before Covid, cannot be used because of these checks. Even app-based systems like Verifly have to be manually checked for those passengers,” says Weston Macklem, a spokesman for Heathrow airport.

FitzGerald agrees. Before the pandemic, London City airport was a favourite with wealthy investment bankers and lawyers as they could dash to meetings without long queues at security. Scanning machines have even been installed so laptops and liquids do not have to be removed from hand luggage, cutting queuing times to a matter of minutes.

“It feels like we have turned back the clocks,” she says. “We’ve had to remove some of our self-bag drop machines to create more space for manual checks.”

Although the queues at Manchester have grabbed the headlines, there have actually been more cancellations at other airports according to the aviation data business Cirium.





Queues at Gatwick aiport this month

Between the start of the Easter Holidays and Good Friday, 640 flights at Heathrow had been cancelled. Gatwick was in second place with 221, with Luton a distant third with 60 flights axed. There were 51 cancellations at Manchester. 

Manchester, by contrast, claims to have kept flights running so that customers did not have to divert to other airports, at the cost of bigger queues.

“We took the decision that people would rather stand in long queues than spend their Easter holiday on their coaches,” says one insider at the airport.

This approach failed to spare the airline from travellers’ wrath. Managing director Karen Smart resigned earlier this month following widespread criticism of the airport’s handling of the situation, and Manchester’s mayor Andy Burnham even threatened to call in the police and fire brigade for crowd control.

Meanwhile, the worst could be yet to come as Easter holidaymakers return to the UK. Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, was urged a month ago by airlines to beef up staffing of passport controls.

Many Border Force staff were redeployed during the pandemic to deal with the English Channel migrant crisis. “There were some concerns that a lot of Border Force staff had been taken out of airports and whether we would get them back again,” one senior executive told the Telegraph last week.  

According to a leaked letter to Patel, Border Force had already warned that “resourcing of the border this summer is expected to be ‘challenging’ and ‘bumpy’ as passenger numbers increase”.

The Home Office is warning of “longer wait times than usual due a high number of passengers” at the border.

“We are mobilising additional staff to help minimise queuing times for passengers,” a Home Office spokesman added.

‘Temporary blip’

Aviation leaders are determined not to let this Easter’s experience put travellers off going abroad again.

“Regardless of what caused the problems, we all now need to get back on top of things as quickly as we can,” says one airport director.

“People need to see that this was a temporary blip and that travel will get back to normal again soon.”

Charles adds: “I think it’s understandable that the sector wouldn’t cope with that, however good your management, it’s really hard to cope with that snapback in demand.”

However, Charles fears that the long queues at airports this Easter will mean families with younger children in particular decide to stay away. With ticket prices surging for future holidays – to more than £1,000 for a family return trip to Malaga, according to the travel website Skyscanner – there is no doubt that some people will think again.

“Without doubt, sadly, I think it’s a knock to the reputation of smooth travel,” Charles says.

“Overseas travel’s loss is the UK’s gain. Because staycations will benefit and boom again. Maybe about 10pc of people who would have travelled overseas, who will say: ‘I can’t deal with the risk. I will book somewhere in the UK and travel by car or train.’ 

“There are still plenty of people who are nervous about travelling post pandemic, they can’t be bothered still with some of the restrictions, they will just say: ‘why take the risk?”

Domestic bookings suggest this is happening already. Holiday park operator Haven says nearly half of its 2.5 million visitors this year are booking for the first time. And rival Parkdean Resorts is seeking to hire 7,000 additional staff across its 66 sites to keep up with surging demand. 

Budget hotel chain Travelodge, meanwhile, has been a winner from the Easter chaos.

“The current severe airport delays are also creating a desperate need for travellers to stay at an airport Travelodge so that they can get some sleep before hitting the long check-in airport queues,” a spokesman says.         

Nevertheless, O’Leary is resolutely bullish about the situation. “People have been locked up for two years, they want to go on holidays,” he says.

“The airports and the airlines in the UK are struggling because of the very strength of a travel recovery.

“Flying is considerably better than trying to get a ferry at the moment with all the P&O Ferries locked up. It’s considerably better than driving around the f****** roadwork-ridden motorways that have the UK trying to get to Cornwall or Cotswolds.

“Flying is by far and away a better family experience this Easter holidaying at home in wet and windy Britain.”