The 7 Events That Caused Mass Air Travel Disruption

LONDON – Post-pandemic staff shortages, adverse weather conditions, and technical difficulties have had a major impact on air travel this summer.

Millions of travelers across the globe have experienced flight delays, cancellations, and disruptions, and many have been left to arrange their own replacement transport and accommodation.

The ground travel experts at CMAC Group believe that a people-centered approach is key to keeping passengers happy throughout their travel experiences, especially when things don’t quite go to plan.

CMAC supports airlines in arranging planned passenger and crew transport alongside alternative transport and accommodation options for disrupted customers and staff, and their high-quality service model means that they can provide replacement ground transportation quickly and effectively.

A faster-than-expected recovery in air travel combined with huge staffing shortages following the global pandemic has certainly caused chaos in the aviation world during Summer 2022.

However, it’s not the first time that the industry has faced such a significant challenge. CMAC has compiled a list of the seven major disasters from the past 15 years.

The Icelandic Ash Cloud

At the time, this disruption was the largest air-traffic shut-down since World War II. 

On April 15th, 2010, the eruptions of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland meant that 8,200 of Europe’s daily scheduled passenger flights were canceled.

On April 16th, 17,200 of the usual 22,000 flights were canceled, and then again, on April 17th, another 17,200 flights were canceled.

After an initial uninterrupted shutdown over much of northern Europe from 15 to 23 April, airspace was closed intermittently in different parts of Europe in the following weeks and did not completely reopen without issue until 17th May. 

In total, around 107,000 flights were canceled across Europe during an 8-day period, accounting for 48% of total air traffic and roughly 10 million passengers.

British Airways System Outage

On May 27th, 2017, British Airways suffered a power failure to its primary data center, leading to severe disruption to its flights.

Although lasting only 15 minutes, the incident resulted in cancellations and delays that affected more than 75,000 passengers around the world, leaving thousands stranded at Heathrow and Gatwick airports.

After investigation, it was found that the failure was caused by an IT engineer performing maintenance work at BA’s Boadicea House data center at Heathrow.

When the Uninterrupted Power System (UPS) broke down, the engineer in question switched the power over to BA’s other Heathrow data center too quickly, causing “catastrophic physical damage” to the airline’s servers.

As well as crashing the British Airways website, grounding flights, halting passenger check-ins and breaking baggage systems, the incident led to BA having to pay out £58 million in passenger compensation claims due to people being stranded on aircraft or at airports, lost luggage, and canceled holidays.

The Beast from the East

In February 2018, a record-breaking Arctic snowstorm swept the UK, causing mass transport disruption.

Dubbed the Beast from the East, the severe weather conditions left people across Britain in desperate need of alternative on-demand transport and temporary accommodation.

As well as rail and road chaos, air travel was disrupted across the 11-day period, with 3,294 flights from the UK canceled and 1,547 delayed for more than two hours.

That’s more than half of the delays and cancellations that occur in the UK during a full winter period, affecting hundreds of thousands of travelers.

As experts in mass disruption, CMAC proactively prepared for the storm, significantly increasing their staff resources to deal with the influx of calls.

CMAC experienced the highest call volume they had ever dealt with, tackling delays and cancellations for airlines, ground handling agents, train operating companies, and breakdown recovery clients, to name but a few.

During this extreme weather event, CMAC safely moved and accommodated over 100,000 people, arranging 6,700 coaches and taxis, and booking over 15,000 hotel rooms. 

Gatwick Airport Drone Incident

On 19th December 2018, just as Christmas was approaching, Britain’s second largest airport, Gatwick, was forced to close for 36 hours following reports of multiple sightings of drones in the vicinity. 

In response to the disaster, new legislation was put in place in 2019 to extend the no-fly zone, and ban gadgets being flown within 5km of an airport. 

Over 140,000 passengers around the world were affected by the airport closure due to the significant hazards posed by the rogue drone in what the Chief Executive of Gatwick declared as “a sustained attack”.

While there were initial speculations over who owned and operated the drone, after a lengthy investigation, no culprit was ever found, and nobody was ever charged. 

After receiving notification of the drone sighting, CMAC implemented an immediate emergency transport solution to relocate thousands of passengers whose incoming flights had been diverted to alternative airports.

23 flights were diverted to Luton, Stansted, and Manchester airports, with smaller volumes diverting to Cardiff, Birmingham, and Southend.

CMAC deployed customer-facing representatives to the airports to coordinate the 2,000 journeys and provide support to airline clients, their passengers, and CMAC suppliers.

There were also hundreds of passengers who would have been left stranded at Gatwick waiting for outbound flights, and so CMAC sourced 258 emergency hotel rooms on behalf of its airline clients and provided passenger and crew transport to and from the airport as required when flights resumed.

Storm Filomena

In January 2021, a rare Spanish snowstorm caused massive disruption for all travelers across Spain, Morocco, and the UK as heavy snow and wintry conditions forced Madrid Barajas airport to close, along with several roads.

The snowfall was the heaviest Spain had seen in 50 years, and thousands of people were left stranded across the globe due to the knock-on impact of canceled flights. 

During this disruption, it was vital that all emergency transport and accommodation services conformed to each country’s COVID-19 guidelines to ensure the safety of passengers.

CMAC’s 24/7 flight disruption specialists worked to deliver solutions across Europe and provided emergency transport and accommodation to over 3,000 affected passengers.

Storm Eunice

Back in February of this year, storm Eunice struck London with 80mph winds with what was feared to be ‘the worst storm in 30 years.

A rare highest level red warning was issued by the Met Office in many regions of the UK, along with many schools, roads, and major attractions closing; the extreme weather conditions caused havoc with air travel.

The chaos resulted in at least 436 flights to and from the UK being canceled. Heathrow was the worst airport affected, with 20% of flights canceled, followed by London City (16%) and Manchester (10%).

Flights that were already airborne during the storm were unable to reach the UK and were forced to make emergency landings at alternative airports.

An EasyJet flight from Bordeaux, for example, endured two aborted landings in Gatwick before being forced to return to the French city three hours after taking off.

Similarly, a flight from Chicago that was due to land at Heathrow was forced to divert its passengers to Geneva.

Summer 2022

After two years of Covid-19-related global travel bans and restrictions, the aviation industry was put under huge stress by the sheer number of passengers returning to travel in 2022, following the ease of limitations. 

Tens of thousands of people flocked to airports for a much-anticipated summer break, in what is now being called the summer of ‘revenge travel’.

Heathrow airport said in June that it expected 54.4 million passengers to travel through its terminals in 2022 as demand for foreign holidays rebounds, and daily departing seats over the summer were set to average 104,000.

Unfortunately, after cutbacks during the pandemic, the stronger-than-expected recovery in air travel has collided with a huge staffing shortage across the aviation industry.

Reports suggest that aviation lost 2.3 million jobs globally, a void that has been felt by many passengers this summer, resulting in canceled flights and long waits.

From ground handling and security to cabin crew, staffing shortages have been impactful on the overall operations of airports and airlines alike – leading to many canceled flights and passengers experiencing long wait times for luggage. 

In response to the chaos, Heathrow has implemented a passenger cap and has also requested that airlines stop selling flight tickets throughout Summer.

Air travel disruption is expected to persist this year, and for most of 2023, as many of the capacity constraints are yet to be resolved.

Neil Micklethwaite, Chief Operating Officer at CMAC Group, says;

“So far during 2022, traveling abroad, whether for business or pleasure, has become increasingly challenging due to the operational and resource difficulties that airports and airlines are facing.”

“Unfortunately, the current climate means it’s likely that this level of passenger disruption is likely to be ongoing for the remainder of this year and probably into 2023.”

“In the case of passenger disruption, some airlines will take full responsibility for minimizing the impact on customers by arranging alternative transportation and accommodation. However, this isn’t standard practice across the sector.”

“Policies for some airlines mean that the traveler must arrange and pay upfront for their own alternative travel and accommodation arrangements, and then claim back the expenses, in the case of flight cancellations or diversions.”

“Whilst this may suit some, many will struggle with the up-front costs of this.”

“Trying to source safe and reliable transport or available hotels at the last minute can create additional stress, particularly during mass disruption, where many other passengers have been impacted and may be trying to do the same.”

“There seems to be an emerging trend within elements of the aviation industry to move toward customer self-service for disruption management.”

“However, this is not always the most beneficial option for consumers, from a time, convenience cost, or personal anxiety perspective.

“In order for airlines to maintain their brand reputation, deliver a first-class customer experience and incentivize loyalty in a highly competitive market, we would suggest that they enlist the experts when it comes to handling disruption for passengers.

“We encourage all airlines to call upon flight disruption specialists when things don’t go to plan.

They should look for a reliable partner with a quality service ethic, a vast supply of trusted transport and accommodation partners, and a tried and tested combination of technology combined with 24/7 multi-site contact center capability providing offline support – something that CMAC Group is proud to offer.

“For consumers, my advice would be to enquire about your chosen airline’s disruption and care for passengers’ policies before booking your ticket and be prepared to potentially arrange your own alternative travel and accommodation in the case of a severe disruption if your airline does not offer to provide it.”

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