Thousands of British holidaymakers, many of them at the end of half-term breaks, are stranded in the Canary Islands after sandstorms swept in from the Sahara, closing airports.
Problems began on the island of Gran Canaria on Saturday afternoon, when the runway was closed because of poor visibility – triggering dozens of diversions from Las Palmas airport.
Other airports in the Canaries have also been intermittently closed.
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Many travellers report scenes of chaos at airports on the islands – and confusion over passengers’ rights, which a number of airlines and holiday companies appear not to have delivered.
We’ve seen spectacular pictures from the islands. What exactly is the threat to aviation?
The Sahara is barely 60 miles from the Canaries at the closest point, and dust storms from the desert cause occasional closures. Not only is visibility reduced but particles can damage engines – as with volcanic ash, which closed the skies across Europe a decade ago. There have been some tragedies and near-misses associated with sudden dust storms.
So pilots and air-traffic controllers are understandably cautious. And I am one of many thousands of people flying into the Canaries whose flights, in the past, have been diverted – though usually only briefly, typically landing in Tenerife until the dust has settled, then continuing on to Lanzarote.
How many cancellations and diversions have there been over the weekend – and how bad is this situation, compared with previous episodes?
It is easily the most extreme disruption that the Canaries have ever experienced in terms of the number of planes diverted and cancelled, and hence the number of passengers stranded.
Leaving aside inter-island flights and services to mainland Spain, I count at Las Palmas airport alone there were 38 diversions over the weekend, of which nine planes returned to their starting point – including services from Newcastle and Bristol – and 38 cancellations.
That means 85 flights failed to take off to the UK, Germany or Scandinavia over the weekend from Gran Canaria, representing around 15,000 people trying to leave from an airport which is closed.
By Sunday afternoon problems started building at the Canaries’ other main airport, Tenerife South, with dozens more cancellations. And there are similar problems on a smaller scale on other islands.
Are flights now resuming?
Yes. Departures started up from Gran Canaria airport shortly after 7am on Monday. Flights to Bournemouth, Exeter, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester and multiple departures to the London airports of Gatwick and Stansted are scheduled for Monday. But that’s of little comfort to the several thousand passengers whose flights were cancelled over the weekend. They are at the back of the queue for seats on these flights.
The luckier ones are those whose plane was stranded in the Canaries – such as British Airways from Gran Canaria to Gatwick, which is expected to take off at 8am, while other passengers are hoping for news of rescue flights. One Jet2 passenger, Lorraine Lovegrove-Wood, said on Sunday night: “We have been told that we ‘probably’ won’t be going home tomorrow and to ask at reception hotel what’s happening after breakfast.”
In a situation like this – which clearly isn’t the airlines’ fault – what can passengers expect?
Under European air passengers’ rights rules, there is no cash compensation – because this dust storm is clearly beyond the airlines’ control.
But a duty of care applies regardless of the cause of the delay. Airlines are responsible for providing accommodation and meals for passengers whose flights are delayed.
So at the first sign of trouble, each airline should be contacting local hotels and provisionally booking rooms and buses to get people there, and making arrangements for handing out meal vouchers – which are obligatory once a delay reaches three hours. Then, when flights are diverted and cancelled, passengers can be given the appropriate care.
Did that go according to plan?
For thousands of passengers, no. Gran Canaria is a holiday island, with hundreds of hotels, and many of them expecting customers who were unable to reach the island. So you might imagine that there were plenty of rooms to go around. But in fact thousands of holidaymakers were forced to spend Saturday or Sunday night at the airport.
I have been in touch with plenty of stranded holidaymakers over the weekend who say they have been promised hotel rooms, and coaches to take them there, that have simply not materialised.
On Sunday evening Rob Moss tweeted Tui, Europe’s biggest holiday company, to say: “I have been abandoned in Tenerife with a four-year-old disabled daughter without accommodation, food or water.
“What kind of inhuman company are you running?”
A spokesperson for Tui said: “We would like to apologise to customers whose flights have been impacted following adverse weather conditions in Gran Canaria on Saturday 22 and Sunday 23 February.
“The safety of our customers and crew is always our highest priority and we are doing all we can to get everyone to their destination as quickly as possible.
“We provided as many customers as we could with overnight accommodation and everyone is being provided with food and drinks as well as being supported by our Tui reps.
“We are very sorry for the inconvenience this is causing and would like to thank our customers for their co-operation and patience.”
Passengers on easyJet were told to make their own hotel arrangements after multiple departures were cancelled. The airline told passengers: ”Due to extremely high demand at the moment in Las Palmas, we’ve been unable to find a room for you. Our staff will do everything they can to make your wait in the terminal building as comfortable as possible.”
But the airline warned it might “put a cap on the amount we refund you” if a passenger finds a room that is more expensive than a “Premier Inn, Ibis and Holiday Inn”.
For holidaymakers who feel they haven’t been looked after – do they have any comeback?
All they can do is claim back for accommodation if they were able to make their own arrangements and can demonstrate that the airline failed to do so – and for meals, if they can produce receipts for the meals that the airline should have provided.
Otherwise, it’s a sad reality that the more passengers who sleep on the airport floor, the more money the airlines save.
Crucially, though, passenger can still insist on their rights for replacement flights. Anyone whose flight has been cancelled, and has been told by their airline, “We can’t fly you home for five days”, can point out that any airline that cancels a flight has a duty to get you to your destination as quickly as possible, even if that means paying for a ticket on a rival carrier.
Thousands of would-be holidaymakers are still in the UK. What are their options?
Dozens of flights are scheduled for Monday morning to the Canaries. There will not be enough to cater for everyone – the length of the flight time between the UK and the Canaries means it is not easy to slot in extra “rescue” flights. Anyone on a package holiday will be able to travel and then claim back the proportion of the trip that has been lost.
Or if it’s no longer worth going, they can cancel for a full refund. Abta, the travel association says: “If the delay is long enough to mean a significant change to the travel arrangements, then clients are entitled to have a refund. Members aren’t obliged to pro-actively offer a refund to clients waiting at the airport, but if a client requests it this should be granted.”
A flight delay of more than 24 hours is certainly a significant change.
For people who have booked direct with the airline: they can claim refunds but won’t automatically be able to get money back for accommodation and rental cars.
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