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.”