British holidaymakers have described being trapped on runways for hours or left to consider driving home from locations as far-removed as Turkey, after a major fault with the UK’s air traffic control system cast air travel into utter dissaray.
With around a million passengers booked to travel on bank holiday Monday, airports were briefly forced to suspend all flights to and from the UK after air traffic control systems went down in a “network-wide” computer failure.
By the time National Air Traffic Services (NAST) announced at 3:15pm that they had “identified and remedied” the technical issue which had forced controllers to input all flight paths manually, more than 500 flights had already been cancelled – rising to 1,200 by the day’s end.
The knock-on effects of such disruption on one of the busiest days of the year has resulted in the worst day for UK air travel since the Icelandic volcano eruption in 2010 – with pain for holidaymakers set to last for days to come.
The Independent has heard from dozens of passengers whose plans have been plunged into chaos, with many now left stranded in foreign destinations with no replacement flights available for several days – amid a desperate scramble for last-minute accommodation.
Concerned relatives back at home said they feared loved ones travelling with heart problems or conditions such as epilepsy could see their ailments exacerbated by the stress of waiting for hours on the tarmac, in airport lounges and in queues for luggage or information.
Many also warned they would miss out days of paid work as a result of the disruption, with others fearing they would miss important occasions they had hoped to mark with relatives overseas, including birthdays and the scattering of a loved one’s ashes.
David Hill, a 61 year old GP in Surrey, and his wife had been staying with friends in the south of France, and had been set to fly home from Nice at 7:45pm in order to be back for appointments with his patients from 8:30am until 7pm on Tuesday.
When their departure time changed initially to 6am on Tuesday, they booked a hotel for the night – but were told shortly afterwards that their flight had been changed again to 2am, before it was again shifted to 4:30am and eventually cancelled.
There are now no replacement flights available until Thursday and EasyJet has said it is unable to help the couple find a hotel, Mr Hill told The Independent.
Ashleigh Blaney, a 34-year-old finance assistant from Glasgow had been in Amsterdam watching the Dutch Grand Prix with her brother, both of whom found themselves “stranded in Schiphol Airport” after their flight to Glasgow was cancelled.
Ms Blaney told The Independent that they had been queueing for over an hour in border control in an attempt to exit the airport, and that no one could tell them where they could pick up their checked-in luggage, describing the situation as an “absolute nightmare”.
While they had managed to rebook their flight tomorrow, it was arriving in Edinburgh instead – and there were no hotels available on the EasyJet app, Ms Blaney said. Her brother, who had been due to fly to Gran Canaria at 6am tomorrow, will no longer be able to make his trip.
Susan Fairbrass, who was due to be scattering her father-in-law’s ashes tomorrow, said her group’s EasyJet flight to Nice at 6:15 pm was delayed until 4:53am – and then cancelled completely.
While they were finally able to book replacement flights for 6:15pm on Tuesday, these were more expensive and no voucher codes were available, while the airline’s online chat service was unavailable, Ms Fairbrass said, adding: “[We] hope Easyjet will play fair with us.”
Gemma Breslaw, her husband and their two children – aged four and five – had been told they were facing “awful” delays of 12 hours at the airport in Rome, where they witnessed “lots of angry people shouting at the staff”, before their flight was ultimately cancelled.
Despite having found a hotel in Rome, the family were unable to find a flight to take them back to Gatwick until 7am on Wednesday. Describing herself as “beyond fed up and annoyed”, she said: “Who wants that flight with two little kids?!”
Joanne Colley, whose flight on the way out to Turkey had been cancelled as well as their return, said she, her husband their two boys – aged seven and nine – were now stranded in Dalaman, near Marmaris, with no flights scheduled back for the rest of the week.
Describing British Airway’s “lack of communication” as “disgraceful”, Ms Colley said the family were considering driving home from Turkey – before eventually managing to find a connecting flight to Istanbul at 6am on Tuesday, and another to the UK departing some 12 hours later.
She warned that both her and her husband are self-employed and would miss client meetings, deadlines and lose earnings as a result, while the delays meant there was no one to take care of their cat back at home.
Dawid Gorski, whose British Airways flight time from Stuttgart to Heathrow had changed multiple times, said: “When I call their customer service number they just literally hang up on me and I can’t do anything.
“[It] feels like I’m stuck at the mercy of a multi billion company. This is an actual joke and I’ve never been more anxious in my life.”
Chloe Lau, a 22-year-old software engineer living in St Albans, said it was “utterly depressing” that despite being a BA Executive Club member they could not reach the airline for information on whether they should cancel their holiday.
Ms Lau, who had been travelling from Gatwick to Tenerife for a six-day package holiday said it took her and her partner “three hours to collect our stowed bags with no updates at all”, and described “chaos as the baggage collection”, with “hundreds of suitcases being hurled aside”.
While those with cancelled flights were told to go to the check-in desks, she said there were no BA staff there when she arrived. “We were told if we get re-allocated to a flight we would get an email sometime,” Ms Lau added.
There was better news, however, for broadcaster Gabby Logan, who revealed she was among those facing possible delays of 12 hours while stuck on the runway in Budapest after three weeks away from home.
In a “happy travel story”, she later announced that she was “boarded and heading home”, adding: “We are very lucky.”
However, a less optimistic passenger on Logan’s flight – who said they had been planning “exotic rail journeys across Europe to get us back to the UK” while stuck in the terminal – simultaneously told The Independent: “Don’t hold your breath” for take-off.
Many were stuck on the tarmac for hours as the chaos unfolded.
“This is awful; it’s like being in prison,” said Courtney Bromfield, from Chelmsford, as she sat on the runway in Marbella. “They have rationed food and drink and have already run out of supplies”, adding: “It’s horrific – we need to be let off the tarmac and not kept here like cattle.
“It’s very worrying and people are panicking. Awful end to a holiday and no one seems to know whats going on. The pilot sounds nervous and is joining conference calls but has no updates. Meanwhile, we’re cramped up and rationing the little supplies we have.”
David Miller, 47, had been especially keen to get home to Chester having been mugged on holiday in Barcelona – only to find himself facing 12-hour delays upon arriving at the airport.
While he feared missed work hours on Tuesday and an unscheduled overnight stay at Heathrow lay ahead, Mr Miller praised the pilot for keeping passengers well updated, and sounded relatively unperturbed by the wait and harrowing holiday encounter as he joked: “Everyone’s jovial, the air con’s on.”
Zach O’Donnell, who found himself stuck on in “limbo” on an EasyJet plane travelling from Barcelona to Bristol, said : “[The] funniest thing is that I was meant to fly home last night but instead spent £209 to change my flight to today so that I could go to the club again.
“Going through this with the most severe hangover on earth after a 5am finish has been a challenge (but worth it for a dance).”
Some, however, appeared to be looking forward to the night ahead. Having just returned from a wedding in Vienna, Sebastian James reached the gate when his group’s Austrian Airlines flight was cancelled.
“They have offered us a meal, taxi to central Vienna and rooms in a hotel and told us to keep an eye on the news for updates. We’re looking forward to a night in Vienna,” he said.
And in rare instances, the airport experience itself provided trip worth remembering. Gwen Magarotto told The Independent that her son Spencer and his family were forced to “sit it out” on the tarmac at Corfu after their flight to Exeter was delayed.
But for her 11-year-old grandson Danny, who “adores planes”, the experience became the “highlight of his holiday” after the “kind” pilot allowed him to sit in the plane’s cockpit while explaining what all of the various dials and mechanisms were.
Ms Magarotto said her grandson had been “over the moon”, but was soon left “freezing” once their plane finally touched down back in Exeter following their holiday in the Greek sun.
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