What Can UK Air Travellers Expect This Christmas?

Written by Kate Goldstone

What can you expect this Christmas if you’re travelling by air? Who knows? Anything could happen, the British weather being what it is. Take last year, where travel chaos reigned on Christmas eve. Here’s our take on surviving potential delays at the UK’s airports this festive season.

Gatwick Airport Christmas 2013

Gatwick Airport Christmas 2013 – from skift.com

Christmas air travel chaos – Could it happen again?

Gatwick Airport on Christmas Eve 2013, and it’s total chaos. The airport’s departures were transferred to the south terminal after flooding caused a massive power failure on Christmas Eve. Thousands of passengers were stranded, some for as long as twelve hours, and dozens of flights were cancelled or delayed.

No trains ran to or from the airport for most of the day, since fallen trees had disrupted the entire network. And as a result of the delays, most local hotels were full to bursting point. Thankfully the airport provided food and bedding.

Of course it wasn’t the airport’s fault – there wasn’t a lot they could do in the face of such extraordinary weather conditions and they don’t control the National Grid. But in April this year a report by MPs called it a “wake-up call for airports across the UK”.

The main problem was the lack of information, which really took its toll. The House of Commons Transport Committee report highlighted a lack of toilets and drinking water too, and the fact that people weren’t given accurate, timely updates. They also said there was a lack of clarity about who was in charge.

Will delays and cancellations screw up people’s Christmas air travel plans this year? Is there any sensible advice about coping with airport delays? And what’s the weather going to be like this Christmas?

Christmas Travel Chaos

Christmas Travel Chaos – from dailymail.co.uk

Improved airport procedures and protocols for Christmas 2014

This year Gatwick airport has set aside a £30m resilience fund to help fund solutions to future delays. And they say they’ll be better able to get the “operational resilience issues” side of things under control, too. This means making “well-drilled plans” that “put passenger interests first”.

As a spokesperson said, “extensive work has already been undertaken to improve contingency plans and passenger welfare in times of disruption.” It isn’t just Gatwick, either. Apparently other British airports are putting similar measures in place, just in case.

An earlier review by Gatwick itself into the crisis said it’d be good to have a “passenger champion” at every terminal to support travellers and answer their questions. Gatwick has also kicked off a series of new flood defences designed to protect it from flooding in future, a wise move since climate change experts predict Britain’s weather is set to get wetter.

Gatwick Airport Travel

Gatwick Airport Travel – from gable-end.com

The MPs’ report recommended the Civil Aviation Authority bring forward improvements in passenger information so people know their rights when facing disruptions to their travel plans, not least about compensation. The Committee’s chairman Louise Ellman also said people should be reimbursed quickly for the extra money they spend because of air travel disruption. A spokesman for the CAA said:

“Both Gatwick and Heathrow are required to have their contingency plans in place by October and, once published, we will regularly review them – taking action where necessary if we feel the plans are not sufficient to protect passengers during disruption.”

Flooding isn’t the only threat to airports this Christmas

Flooding is one thing. But delays at airports can be caused by snow and fog too, and by very high winds. Then there’s the ever-present terrorist threat, which can lock an airport down instantly. Your destination airport might be closed for one reason or another, which will also cause issues. Again, there’s nothing airports can do about any of it after the fact, except do their best to look after passengers and keep them properly informed.

What is the weather forecast for Christmas 2014?

It’s impossible to know what the Christmas weather’s going to be like until a few days before the festivities begin. But TheWeatherOutlook website provides updates based on the latest medium and long range meteorological data.

As we write, on 3rd December, the weather on Christmas Day looks like this:

  • The south – Too mild for snow
  • Wales – Cold, perhaps with some snow or rain
  • The Midlands – Cold and dry
  • The north – too mild for snow
  • Scotland – too mild for snow
  • Northern Ireland and the Republic or Ireland – too mild for snow

Other forecasters believe it could get a fair bit colder towards the end of this month. It’s a lottery, which means checking the forecast nearer the time is your best bet if you want to be prepared. You can’t beat the BBC weather website for accuracy and trustworthiness.

UK Winter Weather

UK Winter Weather

What do airport websites say about their own policy on delays?

Taking a look at a few major British airport websites including Heathrow airport, Stansted airport and Luton airport, there’s no sign of their official policy on delays. The information doesn’t appear on-site, even when searching internally for ‘delays and cancellations policy’. Or does it? If you know where to find the information, let us know by leaving a comment. Then we can share the information with our readers.

 Airport SMS update services

Luckily most big airports provide an SMS update service, for example Heathrow’s SMS update service, where you get real time tracking and updated information about flight times, delays and cancellations over your mobile phone.

15 tips for Christmas air travel delay survival

So you’ve checked the BBC weather website or wherever for the latest Christmas forecast. And it’s absolutely dreadful. With the best will in the world, you might face delays. Here’s some common sense advice about surviving the experience with your sanity intact:

  1. Check with your airline before setting off for the airport
  2. Check with the airport itself, via their website
  3. Sign up for the airport’s SMS update service for real time information
  4. If you can, take some bottled drinking water with you just in case
  5. If you’re travelling by public transport, check for delays and start off earlier if you need to
  6. If you’re driving, check for jam and congestion so you can do your best to avoid it
  7. If the airport doesn’t give you regular updates, keep the pressure on. The more passengers insist on proper information, the more likely you are to get it
  8. Take plenty of DIY entertainment with you, whether it’s your smartphone, laptop, tablet, Kindle or a real book
  9. Check what you’re not allowed to take in your luggage so you don’t get delayed even further
  10. The same goes for hand luggage – the rules are complicated and change frequently
  11. Head for the airline counter as soon as you know there’s a delay or cancellation. If you’re quick enough you might just be able to snag a seat on the next flight out
  12. Ask airline staff I they’re offering vouchers for overnight stays, food and alternative flight tickets
  13. Be polite to airport staff– you’re much more likely to get the help and support you need if you’re nice. After all, it isn’t their fault you’re delayed
  14. You might have a report to write, a book you’ve been dying to read, a loved one to whom you owe a long email or a family Skype conversation that’s long overdue.  Make the best of a bad situation
  15. Stay positive! Scientific research proves the more negative you are, the worse the entire experience will feel. Stay positive and it won’t feel anywhere near as bad. It’s under your control

Nobody knows what the long range weather forecast holds in store this Xmas. But last year’s issues at Gatwick airport have driven some profound changes in the way airports handle disruptions, delays and cancellations.

With a bit of luck air travel delays for Christmas 2014, if there are any, will be a lot less painful than last year.  The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Let’s just hope we don’t have to eat it in 2014!

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