Fury over higher air traffic charges following August meltdown

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By Michael Race & Katy Austin
Business reporter and Transport correspondent, BBC News

Airlines have reacted with fury and warned passengers will face higher fares after the UK’s aviation regulator increased air traffic control charges.

The costs, paid by airlines, come after a UK air traffic control meltdown in August which led to long flight delays and left thousands stranded.

The fee will rise from £47 to £64 per flight until 2027, representing an increase of around 43p per passenger.

Airlines said the increases “cannot be justified” given the recent disruption.

Tim Alderslade, chief executive of industry body Airlines UK, said the hike in charges was “yet another kick in the teeth for passengers who have been plagued by issues this summer including the August Nats [National Air Traffic Services] IT failure”.

The group, which represents the likes of British Airways, EasyJet, Jet2, Ryanair, Virgin Atlantic and Tui, said passengers would “inevitably end up footing the bill of millions of pounds for increases”.

“It is clear that a wider independent review into how Nats is regulated is needed to protect passengers and ensure that airlines are not always forced to act as the insurer of last resort and bear millions of pounds of costs for failures that are not their fault,” he added.

In August, around 2,000 flights at airports across the UK were cancelled when the National Air Traffic Services system for automatically processing flight plans failed, leaving passengers stranded.

Some people slept on airport floors or in makeshift beds, while many scrambled to rebook flights.

During the IT meltdown, airlines incurred huge costs to provide accommodation and put on more flights for customers who were stuck overseas. Some airlines, including Ryanair, have called for such costs to be covered by Nats.

Nats apologised for the disruption and has said measures have been put in place to protect against the “incredibly rare” system failure from happening again.

But an aviation industry source told the BBC Nats had confirmed it would not directly reimburse airlines for the costs they incurred as a result of the technical failure in August.

The airline regulator the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA)’s decision to allow Nats to charge more for its services, is separate its ongoing investigation into the system failure incident.

Jonathan Hinkles, chief executive of Scottish airline Loganair, described the hike in charges as “airway robbery” and said airlines would look to divert flights from over the UK to “reach cheaper Irish airspace”.

“Even though an airline will burn more fuel flying this longer route – and generate more emissions – the saving driven to avoid these rapacious Nats charges is worth it,” he said in a LinkedIn post.

Mr Hinkles argued if airlines avoided UK airspace, it would lead to less income for Nats which would increase the “burden for those left behind who have no alternative”, such as regional airline Loganair.

But Mike Clancy, general secretary of Prospect union, said the UK “has some of the most congested and complex airspace in the world yet one of the best safety records – investment is essential to maintaining that”.

The CAA said is decision would enable Nats to “recover its operating costs and was “consistent” for Nats to maintain a “safe operation”.

The charges for airlines relate to services provided in UK and North Atlantic airspace.

Andrew Walker, chief economist at the CAA, said it would consider further regulatory steps following the outcome of the independent review of the IT meltdown.

Tim Jeans, aviation executive and former managing director at Monarch Airlines, said the decision would go down “very badly”.

“Nats is a monopoly so the airlines and the industry have absolutely no choice but to accept these charges and it looks to me as if the CAA has swallowed the Nats story basically saying that…charges have got to go up,” he said.

What are my rights if my flight is cancelled?

Passengers have a number of rights under UK law if they are:

Flying from a UK airport
Arriving at a UK airport on an EU or UK airline
Arriving at an EU airport on a UK airline

Airlines must offer the choice of a refund or alternative flight, regardless of how far in advance the cancellation was made.

Return tickets must be fully refunded if either leg is cancelled.

And passengers have a right to be booked on another airline – or other suitable mode of transport – if it is going to their destination significantly sooner.

Read more here.

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