Thousands of passengers face cancelled, delayed or diverted flights this evening because an air traffic controller at London’s Gatwick airport went sick – repeating a situation experienced just eight days ago.
Pilots are being warned of “heavy delays all evening” because of the problem, according to Europe’s aviation agency, Eurocontrol.
Nats said in a statement: “Air traffic control restrictions were put in place this afternoon due to short notice staff absence affecting our air traffic control team at Gatwick airport.
“The situation is now improving with a full night shift in place, and the restrictions are reducing as a consequence. We are continuing to work closely with the airport to ensure we can help airlines recover their operations as quickly as possible and we apologise very sincerely to everyone who has been inconvenienced.”
Thousands of arriving passengers found themselves landing in unfamiliar locations. More than a dozen flights diverted to airports as far away as Wales, while easyJet has axed at least 16 departures and arrivals this evening due to the disruption.
The longest diversions were for an Air Baltic flight from Tallinn that landed at Brussels and a British Airways arrival from Faro, which touched down in Cardiff.
Both planes stayed on the ground for several hours before being cleared to fly to Gatwick. The passengers finally arrived around five hours late.
Lufthansa’s arrival from Frankfurt went to Heathrow, and the return leg from Gatwick was cancelled.
Air Europa passengers waiting at Gatwick for a flight to Madrid are also stranded; the inbound plane landed at Stansted, and the return trip to the Spanish capital has been cancelled. The Essex airport was the destination for a Ryanair flight from Dublin.
Tui sent its arrivals from the Greek islands of Corfu and Crete to Stansted, while the planes from Kefalonia and Samos landed in Bournemouth.
EasyJet, the biggest airline at Gatwick, diverted five flights to Luton: from Belfast, Faro, Heraklion, Malaga and Mykonos.
The latest disruption follows an earlier episode of “short-notice staff sickness” at Gatwick on 6 September, which triggered dozens of flight cancellations.
On bank holiday Monday, 28 August, the Nats air traffic control system for the entire UK failed for several hours, triggering more than 2,000 flight cancellations.
Michael O’Leary, chief executive of Ryanair, called on the Nats CEO, Martin Rolfe, to resign “and hand the job over to someone competent enough to do it”.
He said: “Airlines are paying millions of pounds to Nats each and every year and should not have to see their passengers suffer avoidable delays due to UK ATC [air traffic control] staff shortages.”
Tony and Maureen Wheeler, founders of Lonely Planet travel guides, were on British Airways flight BA2661 from Dalaman in Turkey to Gatwick. It was flying across the Channel at 4.35pm when it went into a holding pattern. After two circuits over the sea, the Airbus A320 flew to the north of Kent where it again circled before finally being cleared to land at Gatwick an hour after the disruption to its flight plan began.
When he landed, Mr Wheeler said: “Just enjoyed multiple diversions: Bournemouth at capacity, Stansted here we come. Oops no, we landed at Gatwick.”
Many flights are heavily delayed, with the Wizz Air flight from Istanbul and the easyJet service from Madeira both over three hours behind schedule They are expected to land in the early hours.
Even though the cause of the severe disruption is beyond the airlines’ control, they are responsible for finding alternative flights as soon as possible for stranded passengers, as well as finding hotels and providing meals in line with the length of the delay.
A spokesperson for easyJet said: “Nats air traffic control staffing shortages at Gatwick today have led to a significantly reduced flow rate being imposed on airlines meaning some flights are being disrupted.
“We are very disappointed that customers are once again 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, notifying those on cancelled flights of options to rebook or receive a refund and provided hotel accommodation and meals where required.”
A spokesperson for Gatwick said: “Due to a short-notice staff absence in the air-traffic control tower, temporary air traffic control restrictions have been put in place this afternoon. This will cause some delays.
“London Gatwick would like to apologise to any passengers who have been impacted by these restrictions. Please contact your airline for more information.
“Nats are a world-class provider of air traffic services and London Gatwick’s senior management recognises how hard the airport’s air traffic controllers are working to keep the operation moving. We are working closely with Nats to build resilience in the airport’s control tower to ensure disruption is kept to a minimum.”