21 Dec 2010

Christmas travel disruption: how many people affected?

Hundreds of thousands of people may not reach their Christmas destinations abroad because of the travel chaos in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. Channel 4 News looks at the full picture.

Abta, which represents travel agencies and tour operators in the UK, estimates that four million people were planning to head abroad over Christmas and the New Year – 1.5m of them from Heathrow Airport.


But by the end of Tuesday, about 400,000 people who had been scheduled to travel to or from Heathrow will have had their flights cancelled – and the problems are set to continue.

Heathrow’s operator, BAA, will be running a third of its normal schedule until Thursday morning – meaning that at least 100,000 others, and possibly many more, will also have their flights cancelled.

BAA said: “Passengers should anticipate further delays and cancellations in the following days and potentially beyond Christmas Day.”

British Airways is advising its customers to stay away from the airport, unless they have a confirmed booking. The Government has lifted restrictions on night flights to allow more services to operate.

Weary travellers at Heathrow Airport (Reuters)


Abta expected 700,000 people to fly abroad from Gatwick over the Christmas period. At the weekend, nearly 400 of 1,200 flights were cancelled. But today there was an improvement, with 70 flights cancelled, but another 100 added by airlines.

BA expects to run most of its scheduled services to and from Gatwick and London City Airport.

The respected travel journalist Simon Calder has calculated that by the end of the weekend, “500,000 people who had planned to fly to, from or through Heathrow and Gatwick were experiencing ‘the trouble and inconvenience to passengers caused by cancellation of flights’, as defined by EU regulation 261”.

Other airports

Abta predicted that 250,000 people would travel abroad from Luton, where flights have also been disrupted. There have also been delays and cancellations at Edinburgh, where 145,000 passengers were scheduled to join the winter rush.


An estimated 225,000 people were planning to travel to the continent on a Eurostar train. Speed restrictions are in place because of the snow and Eurostar has not been able to operate as many trains as usual. The problems began yesterday, when Eurostar was only able to run 75 per cent of its services, affecting 10,000 passengers.

Today, 80 per cent of services went ahead and 8,000 travellers had their travel plans disrupted. The company is now asking customers booked to travel before Christmas to seek a refund or change the time of their travel if their journey is not essential.


There were delays and cancellations throughout Britain, with services suspended on the East Coast line, between London and Peterborough, because of damage to overhead power cables.

East Coast tickets are being accepted on other routes, although passengers are advised to postpone their journey until tomorrow.

Refunds and compensation

Travellers are not entitled to compensation from airlines and Eurostar because the disruption is deemed to have been caused by circumstances outside their control – the weather. But they can rebook or claim refunds.

Stranded in Frankfurt
If misery loves company then we stranded travellers are a very sorry lot, writes Channel 4 News producer April Brown from Frankfurt airport.

I began my journey from Washington DC's Dulles airport on Friday, and here is Tuesday (though it is getting more difficult to keep track of the passing days) and I am still in transit. My current home away from home is Frankfurt's airport. My checked baggage is, presumably, somewhere in the bowels of the flughafen and I fear I may never see it again.

Clearly the "big freeze" has played a huge part in disrupting the plans of thousands. Though snow has been responsible for a few of the cancellations I've experienced, I've also run into an uncomfortable number of mechanical problems which have resulted in delays and cancellations.

Further snowfall overnight brought the airport to a virtual standstill, and I'm not just referring to the planes on the tarmac. Some queues stretch for hundreds of metres and barely move – the one I am supposed to get in to get my new boarding pass goes from one hall to the next. It's unclear which is often the correct queue, as there are so many snaking around and nearly through one another.

For the most part, people here are, if not in good spirits, at least resigned to queue quietly and in an orderly manner. It's almost as if I were home. But not quite.

Passengers are entitled to food and hotel costs while they are delayed if they are travelling with an EU carrier, flying from an EU airport or using Eurostar. Some people’s travel insurance may also cover airport delays.

BA says any of its customers planning to travel through Heathrow this month can rebook or ask for a refund, whether their flight has been cancelled or not.

People affected by train delays and cancellations in Britain may be able to claim compensation. What people are entitled to varies from operator to operator: people cancelling their journeys on the East Coast line today are entitled to a refund.