Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you.
A sudden flight cancellation is an odd experience.
One moment you are preparing to fly hundreds or thousands of miles: perhaps to a fresh and exciting destination, or simply keen to get home because of family or work commitments. Emotionally, you are almost there, with just a few hours of eating, napping or looking out of the window in idle contemplation ahead of your arrival.
The next moment – after that fateful announcement that the plane is going nowhere – you realise that you will not now be ticking off the distance at nine miles per minute. You have no idea how the next few hours, or days, will turn out. And you are in competition with every other passenger on your flight for available hotel rooms and replacement flights.
At Luton airport last Tuesday evening, five planes – all boarded and ready to go – were cancelled before take-off due to a serious fire in a car park a couple of hundred metres away from the terminal. Most of the many hundreds of passengers discovered that they would be obliged to try to sleep on the floor of the airport terminal. Next morning, they learnt Luton would remain closed for most of the day and they must begin the long and complicated business of trying to reschedule their trips.
Jack, who was trying to fly home to Dublin, told me of his experience asking at a series of local hotels for a room. “We’ve been sold out for hours,” was the refrain.
“So I just came back here and I’ve been trying to sleep on the cold floor since,” Jack said. When we talked, he was waiting for the airline desk to open to try to figure out his options.
“It seems like you’re in sort of some sort of weird limbo,” he told me. “I hope it’s swifter than I’m thinking it might be.”
Now imagine that experience happening to a quarter of a million people on a single day. That is what happened on bank holiday Monday, 28 August 2023, when the main UK air-traffic control computer system, and its back-up, failed for several hours. By the time engineers working for the air-navigation provider, Nats, solved the problem, the outage had triggered the cancellation of 1,600 flights – with around 400 more to…