Why Are So Many Flights Getting Cancelled This Summer?

British Airways has now paused selling short-haul flights out of Heathrow.
Jonathan Brady - PA Images via Getty Images

The summer of travel chaos appears to be never-ending, with British Airways (BA) suspending selling short-haul flights from Heathrow for at least a week.

BA suspended ticket sales for domestic and European services until and including Monday August 8 to comply with Heathrow’s cap on passenger numbers.

“As a result of Heathrow’s request to limit new bookings, we’ve decided to take responsible action and limit the available fares on some Heathrow services, to help maximise rebooking options for existing customers, given the restrictions imposed on us and the ongoing challenges facing the entire aviation industry,” a BA spokesperson told HuffPost UK.

Flight operators have been cancelling flights left, right and centre since the beginning of summer, with some cancellations being made just moments before departure.

But why have there been so many cancellations and what are your rights if it happens to you? We’ll walk you through it.

Why are there so many cancellations?

Staff shortages appear to be the main culprit. This is because lots of airlines cut staff numbers during the height of the Covid pandemic, when people were unable to travel. Now, they have been struggling to recruit enough staff to cope with renewed demand.

And demand is high – after a couple of years of not being able to travel, lots of people understandably want to go on holiday.

On top of this, strikes are also going ahead throughout the summer as staff call for better pay when resources are stretched to the limit. Easyjet, SAS and Lufthansa have all experienced strikes in July, the Telegraph reported, with Ryanair staff set to strike throughout August.

To add more fuel to the fire, some airports have put caps on the number of passengers who can depart each day. Heathrow airport put a cap on daily departing passengers which it said was in response to staff shortages, meaning only 100,000 passengers can depart daily.

The airport said airlines need to hire more staff – specifically ground handlers – quickly in order to reduce travel disruptions.

Chief executive officer John Holland-Kaye warned the cap, which was only meant to be for a couple of months, could stay in place until next summer. He told Bloomberg UK: “This is not going to be a quick fix ... It’s going to take 12 to 18 months, and not just at Heathrow.”

It’s a bit of a chicken and egg scenario, as airlines are now blaming the passenger cap for more flight cancellations and delays. In fact, it’s stirred up major beef in some camps.

Back in July, Emirates issued a scathing press release saying Heathrow gave them 36 hours notice to comply with capacity cuts – “their communications not only dictated the specific flights on which we should throw out paying passengers, but also threatened legal action for non-compliance,” it read.

Emirates deemed the demands “entirely unreasonable and unacceptable” and accused the airport of not planning ahead: “Now faced with an ‘airmageddon’ situation due to their incompetence and non-action, they are pushing the entire burden – of costs and the scramble to sort the mess – to airlines and travellers.”

A Heathrow spokesperson said at the time it would be “disappointing” if “any airline would want to put profit ahead of a safe and reliable passenger journey”.

Emirates and Heathrow later issued a joint statement to say they were working together to get passengers on their holidays, with Emirates capping further sales on its flights until mid-August to “assist Heathrow in its resource ramp up”.

Virgin Atlantic also criticised the airport’s actions and claimed it was responsible for failures which are contributing to the chaos.

Other airlines have responded to Heathrow’s demands by culling flights. British Airways, for example, announced it would cancel 10,300 flights until October, with one million passengers affected.

What are your rights?

Airlines have since been accused of “harmful practices” in their treatment of passengers affected by disruption.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) issued a joint letter to carriers, expressing concern that “consumers could experience significant harm unless airlines meet their obligations”.

The letter stated: “We are concerned that some airlines may not be doing everything they could to avoid engaging in one or more harmful practices.”

These include selling more tickets for flights “than they can reasonably expect to supply”, not always “fully satisfying obligations” to offer flights on alternative airlines to passengers affected by cancellations, and failing to give consumers “sufficiently clear and upfront information about their rights”.

If you’ve already booked a flight with an affected airline, you will need to wait for cancellations or strike dates to be announced before you can take action.

If you have a journey that is time-critical, you might want to consider booking an alternative flight, but do bear in mind that you will only be able to get a refund on your flight if it’s grounded.

“We recommend customers book as normal, Steve Witt, co-founder of Not Just Travel, previously told HuffPost UK about summer strikes. “Airports and airlines are working together to minimise disruption and good travel agents will ensure customers are fully protected in case anything does go wrong.”

It’s generally good practice to pay for flights and holidays on a credit card if you have one and where your transaction is more than £100, according to travel expert Emma Coulthurst.

“You have better consumer protections if you do this,” she previously told HuffPost UK. “As long as you put even a £1 on your credit card (and make sure you pay it off so you don’t incur interest), you will be protected.” She also recommended ensuring you have insurance in place at the time of booking.

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