More than 600,000 air passengers have endured travel misery this year because of failures at Britain’s beleaguered air traffic control service, it was claimed tonight.
Senior aviation sources claim up to 650,000 people have been caught up by delays and cancellations because of problems at National Air Traffic Services (Nats).
It comes as The Mail on Sunday can reveal that another 150 flights will be cancelled at Gatwick over the next two weeks because of a shortage of air traffic controllers.
A daily cap on flights was imposed at the airport last week after Nats said 30 per cent of its control tower staff were unavailable ‘for a variety of medical reasons, including Covid’. The restrictions resulted in 164 flights being axed, ruining the travel plans of 27,000 passengers.
Now this newspaper has learnt that following a crisis meeting on Friday night, Nats and airport bosses have agreed to retain the cap for another two weeks.
Travellers have complained about the long queues throughout this year
Dozens of flights have been cancelled, delayed or diverted this year, with lack of air traffic control staff cited as a problem
Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary described the cap as ‘bull****’, adding: ‘What are the other 70 per cent of them doing, while 30 per cent of them are sitting at home eating corn flakes and watching morning television?’
In a furious broadside, Mr O’Leary said he did not believe that Nats are short of staff, suggesting air traffic controllers skip work. He said: ‘They bunk off. Through the summer on Saturday mornings there is always a reduction in Nats capacity. And when there is a big English soccer match there’s a big reduction in capacity the morning after.’
The fresh wave of cancellations will increase calls for Martin Rolfe, the boss of Nats, to be fired. Mr O’Leary accused Mr Rolfe of a ‘p*** poor performance’.
His incendiary comments come after months of growing anger among airline bosses at the thousands of flight delays and cancellations caused both by a Nats computer glitch during the August bank holiday and a shortage of air traffic controllers at Gatwick.
Writing in today’s MoS, Johan Lundgren, the chief executive of EasyJet, the largest carrier at Gatwick, branded the ongoing disruption ‘completely unacceptable’ and said he shared the ‘immense frustration’ of passengers.
In a major intervention, he accused Nats of ‘structural understaffing’, adding: ‘A shortage of air traffic controllers at Gatwick Airport has plagued the travel industry and caused misery to many of our passengers.’
Easyjet said Gatwick has been unable to operate a full schedule of flights for 40 days since May because of staffing problems in the airport’s control tower.
A Nats spokesman said it was training extra controllers but insisted the Gatwick tower ‘has been manned at 99 per cent this year.’ A spokesman said: ‘Regulations to restrict the number of departures/arrivals are imposed as a measure of last resort to maintain safety, which is our first priority.’
Gatwick said: ‘The airport has decided to extend the temporary limit on daily flight movements as a precautionary measure through to October 15.
‘We would like to apologise for the continued disruption.’