2018 has been a difficult year for Belfast International Airport. First, the facility faced criticism over its sponsorship of the DUP’s annual North Antrim dinner in February – a Brexit-themed event with Eurosceptic Tory MP Priti Patel as guest speaker (three months after she’d been forced to resign from the UK government for breaching the Ministerial Code). Curiously, Belfast International is based in Antrim South constituency, and not in Ian Paisley Jnr’s North Antrim fiefdom.
Then in May came the first of what would be a series of high profile embarrassments regarding security arrangements at the airport – as processing delays caused lengthy queues on multiple occasions, with passengers missing flights. And last month a disabled passenger was turned away by airport security en route to visit his sick father (who was about to begin cancer treatment) because they deemed his wheelchair repair kit a security risk. Even the wrath of God visited the facility in July when more than a month’s rain fell on Aldergrove in just a couple of hours – flooding the airport’s overspill car park, with up to 1,000 vehicles reportedly damaged. And in the latest turn of events, news that Norwegian Airlines was ceasing flights from Aldergrove led to Airport management issuing a petulant press statement in which it called the operator’s actions moronic. Despite carrying record numbers of passengers these days, it does feel like Belfast International has spent 2018 bouncing from one public relations disaster to the next.
Alongside these well-documented calamities, there is arguably a bigger issue facing the airport – and one that has escaped the attention of the local media. One which visits severe inconvenience and disruption upon thousands of passengers there each and every week, and has arguably blighted the airport as a transport gateway. And that is the fact that Easyjet – the largest airline operating from Belfast International – routinely have evening flights to and from the airport delayed or even cancelled. The occasional delay caused by difficult weather or staff problems could be understood and grudgingly accepted as part and parcel of the modern aviation experience. But it is neither understandable nor acceptable when an airline essentially appears incapable of ensuring that its evening flights from a particular airport operate anywhere close to their advertised schedule.
Flight tardiness at Belfast International is by no means a new phenomenon. Data released last year revealed that the airport was the second worst in the UK for delays, after Gatwick (1). For perspective, Heathrow is the seventh busiest airport in the entire world – carrying thirteen times the number of passengers Aldergrove does, and serving the congested skies of London and south-east England. Yet it still managed to post better punctuality figures last year than Belfast International, which is barely the UK’s 10th busiest airport. This lack of punctuality appears to have continued into 2018 – especially when it comes to Easyjet and particularly over recent months. According to data from Airportia.com (which records the departure details of flights around the world), a number of Easyjet’s routes to and from Belfast International airport have had a recent punctuality record of less than one in every five leaving on time, with the recorded delay in some cases being an hour on average. And they specifically list the 8:30pm daily Easyjet flight from Gatwick to Belfast International as having run without delay on only TWO occasions in August.
Anecdotal evidence also abounds of continual and significant delays faced by Easyjet passengers at Belfast International. June provided a rare example of the local media shining a light on the situation when the Belfast Telegraph ran a story about passengers stranded overnight in Mallorca after their flight was cancelled (2). And in August the Daily Mirror reported that 146 passengers had their holidays ruined when Easyjet cancelled an evening flight from Belfast to Mallorca at extremely short notice, because “the crew were tired” (3) . These examples aside, the continual and often severe delays facing Easyjet flights from Belfast International (particularly evening flights) has largely escaped the media’s attention.
My interest in this issue was triggered by the fact that I have flown regularly between London and Belfast over the last six months – primarily using Easyjet via Belfast International. Finding my flights continually plagued with delays, I began to make a point of always checking the departures board as I passed through the airport in an attempt to determine how widespread this issue was. It soon became apparent that not only were delays a daily occurrence there, but they appeared to be endemic across Easyjet’s evening flights – regardless of destination. And on two recent occasions, the frequent delays I usually suffer escalated into major disruption. In May I found myself successfully awarded £220 under EU Regulation No:261/2004, which automatically triggers compensation after a delay of over 3 hours on any short-haul flight. On that occasion, I faced a long delay on a late evening Easyjet booking from Aldergrove to Stansted. Last month I was booked onto a 9pm Easyjet flight from Belfast to Gatwick, which as per usual faced delays. The flight that had been due to leave for Gatwick an hour earlier was also running late, and once its projected departure time hit a three hour delay it was suddenly cancelled. That turned airport arrivals into a giant queue as stranded passengers tried to secure hotels, taxis and seats on alternative flights for the next day. As my 9pm scheduled flight also hit the three hour delay point, which would have opened the possibility of EU compensation, it was also suddenly cancelled – at midnight on a Friday. Using the Easyjet App, I had been able to track the plane we were due to catch travelling from Toulouse to Gatwick and landing there at 9:20pm. Yet Easyjet cancelled both the delayed Gatwick to Belfast leg (which the plane I’d tracked from Toulouse was due to become), as well as the return led on which I was booked. The reason given at the airport was that the crew had exceeded their daily working hours, leaving no-one to staff the flights (more on this later). As a result, the last two flights in both directions between Gatwick and Belfast that Friday evening were cancelled – four flights in total on one route, with doubtless 800 or more passengers left stranded.
And there were no less than 10 delayed Easyjet flights to 6 different destinations from Belfast International that evening, whilst all other airlines there were operating as normal. Myself and the other passengers on my cancelled flight then had to join the back of the already large customer service queue at Belfast International (dozens of people were still being processed from the flight which had been cancelled an hour earlier) to speak with staff about what our options were. But as the only staff available were Airport rather than Easyjet employees, they were well-meaning but largely useless. Crucially, they were unable to answer questions about what costs we would be allowed to incur and then reclaim from Easyjet as a result of our cancelled flight – leaving passengers to gamble on what essential expenditure they could undertake. A couple of police officers appeared – presumably called by Airport staff in expectation of angry interactions (do the PSNI really have nothing more important to do on a Friday night than provide de-facto security for Easyjet ?). And because so many flight rebookings had already been made for people from the previous cancelled flight, by the time we got to the front of the queue (well after midnight at this stage) there were no seats available on ANY flights out of EITHER Belfast airport for the next day, and almost no hotel spaces left at a price level that Easyjet were prepared to cover. So the only alternative travel option offered to those on my cancelled flight was a refund or to fly out two days later on the Sunday – completely ruining any weekend trips people had planned, and forcing them to spend TWO nights in Belfast (with staff unable to confirm if Easyjet would refund more than one night’s stay). I chose a refund on the cost of my cancelled flight, and managed to secure the very last seat on a Ryanair flight from Dublin to Stansted for the following evening – but it lost me an entire day, cost three times the price of my original Easyjet flight, and I also had to get down to Dublin. Finally – to add insult to injury – my claim for EU compensation was denied by Easyjet, as they claimed the delay had been caused by bad weather in Europe (in contrast to the ‘tired crew’ reason we’d been given at the airport). However – weather charts recorded clear skies across Europe that evening, and the other operators flying in and out of Aldergrove did not suffer any similar disruption.
The issue of airline crew fatigue is a genuine one, with a legal basis. The maximum period that cabin crew are allowed to work in any one shift is 13 hours. They have the discretion to extend that by a further two hours if they deem themselves fit to do so, but they are legally obliged to NOT fly if they feel fatigued or unfit – or suspect they will be before the completion of their duties (i.e. before a flight lands). Crew being tired can therefore legally ground a flight – particular evening flights, which are inevitably scheduled towards the end of cabin crews’ duty periods. As fatigue is an operational issue, and not treated as force majeure, it is not valid grounds on which to refuse compensation under EU Regulation No:261/2004. Inclement weather is, however. Perhaps that helps explain why a cancelled flight which was explained at the airport as being due to crew fatigue was later, once an application for compensation was filed, labelled instead as the result of bad weather.
All airlines like to keep their planes moving, as the longer they sit on the ground the less time they spend carrying fee-paying passengers. Budget operators in particular like to tightly pack the schedules for each of their aircraft, leaving a slim margin between flights to cope with any issues that arise. Which explains why delays of some sort are not unusual with such operators. And if one flight faces substantial delays for whatever reason, that can have a knock-on effect on a range of other routes and destinations for the rest of that day. Those delays can, in turn, result in cabin crew over-running their legal in-air time, causing further problems and even cancellations. In short – budget airline schedules are like dominoes stacked very closely together.
Even accounting for the above, Belfast International is still an outlier in punctuality terms – and particularly its EasyJet evening flights. To what extent might that also be due to the airport’s peripheral location? Easyjet base few of their planes at Belfast International overnight. So if they operate a delayed evening flight to Belfast and find that they have to cancel the delayed return leg back out that evening due to crew fatigue, that would leave the plane sitting in the wrong place to fulfil its busy schedule for the following morning. In which circumstance, would cancelling both legs of the already delayed flights not be the more attractive operational proposition, pinning the blame on the weather and leaving the plane in the correct place to begin its busy schedule for the next day? In short – is Belfast International’s location at the proverbial ‘end of the track’ combining with the tight scheduling of budget flights to make even more of its flights late or cancelled?
Finally – a word about how Belfast International Airport itself is poorly equipped to deal with the frequent delays that arise there. For example – if your departure is late by 2hrs, under EU law you’re supposed to receive vouchers from your airline to cover basic catering needs whilst you wait. Not only do passengers at Aldergrove have to actively seek out and request these vouchers, the only place they’re available from is the airport’s Customer Service desk – which is located back in the check-in area. And therefore inaccessible to passengers who have gone through to the Departures Lounge to await their flights (as you’re instructed to do, even when your flight is delayed). This results in the overwhelming majority of passengers delayed by 2 hours or more being deprived of a legal entitlement, to the financial benefit of the airline involved. And given Easyjet’s poor punctuality at Belfast International, their failure to have any staff there to deal with the fall-out from those delays and cancellations is surely unacceptable.
Running a low-cost airline is a complex business – but also a very lucrative one, as Easyjet’s predicted £590m profit for this year can attest. Genuine delays are not unusual, caused by everything from bad weather to air traffic control strikes. With budget operators packing their flight schedules as closely together as possible, it could be argued that occasional short delays are the price we must pay if we want cheap airline tickets. But the sheer level and frequency of delays facing Easyjet evening flights to and from Belfast International, and the fact that the airport ranks so poorly for punctuality overall, suggests that there may be something more fundamental and structural at play here. And as Aldergrove is Northern Ireland’s main gateway to the outside world, having its largest airline continually operate with significant delays is in effect blighting the airport – and by extension, Northern Ireland’s economy. Plus it results in severe inconvenience and disruption to thousands of passengers there each and every week. Surely it is long past time for our local media to turn its attention towards understanding why key flights out of Belfast International appear to face endemic delays, and the impact that this is having upon our residents, visitors and businesses?