Drone chaos shows passengers’ rights must be respected

At Costa Coffee in the Arrivals area of Gatwick’s South Terminal, the festive hits are relentless. Listen, here’s Wizzard again, boosting Roy Wood’s pension with every childish chorus.

But few passengers right now wish it could be Christmas every day. Because the latter part of December is becoming painfully synonymous with massive travel disruption.

In 2010, heavy snow at Heathrow obliterated the pre-Christmas schedules for (then) the world’s biggest airport by international passenger numbers, and the Salvation Army showed up at Terminal 3 to deliver travellers some tenderness.

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By 2013, it was the turn of the North Terminal at Gatwick, when flooding on Christmas Eve washed out the festive plans for more than 10,000 passengers.

But both these descents into chaos pale compared with the nightmare before Christmas experienced by more than 100,000 passengers at Gatwick this week, starting at 9.03pm on Wednesday.

Reports of drones at the Sussex airport were immediately acted upon, with the only rational defence: closing the world’s busiest runway. 

Diversions, we’ve had few, when drones have encroached at Gatwick. In July 2017 a fool and his unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strayed too close and closed the runway for 14 minutes – enough to dispatch five incoming planes to other airports.

But at Gatwick on 19-20 December 2018, the first six-hour closure will be remembered merely an overture to the main performance of the “drone ranger”: effectively wiping out the schedules on one of the busiest days of the year, causing untold stress, anger and grief as 100,000 travel plans were ripped apart by something as flimsy as the rotors on a UAV.

Like the passengers, the aviation world was shocked and appalled by the wanton wreckage caused by a well-executed plan to maximise upset. And the accountants at Gatwick’s key airlines – easyJet, British Airways and Norwegian – will be counting huge losses at a time when they should be amassing big profits.

The carriers are losing lots of high-value bookings from travellers who cancel, and paying handsomely (or at least they should be) for passengers who stick doggedly to the idea of getting where they intend to be at Christmas. 

As the airlines know to their considerable financial detriment, the European air passengers’ rights rules are clear on cancellations. Whatever the cause of the disruption – act of God or malicious individual – the airline has a must-do list for every passenger who decides to continue with their journey. It must find you another flight, either on its own services or, if quicker, a rival, and provide meals and accommodation until it can get you where you need to be.

Fringe benefits for the passenger include transfers to and from the hotel and, quaintly, “two telephone calls, telex or fax messages”.

What concerns the airlines most is not the tricky business of sorting out a telex or fax machine on demand, but the open-ended, uncapped nature of the obligation to passengers. It is expensively disproportionate and out-of-kilter with travellers’ more modest rights when taking international journeys by rail, bus or sea. But it is the law, and must be respected.

By lunchtime on Thursday I had lost count of the people who had reported being left to go-it-alone by their airline. In some cases, passengers say that the airline that the disruption was beyond their control (true) and therefore the duty of care did not apply (false).

Agreed, the scale of Thursday’s disarray was daunting for the most well-organised customer-service operation. But we have been here before, as British Airways knows from its IT-meltdown in May 2017, and easyJet experienced on that dreadful 24 December in 2013.

There will rightly be a thorough investigation into how a major international airport can be brought to its knees by an ill-intentioned individual or group with some fairly cheap and, by military standards, rudimentary technology. But the Civil Aviation Authority must also demand answers from airlines about their behaviour at a time of intense stress. I will be happy to share my conversations with some profoundly unhappy travellers.

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