London Gatwick airport is reducing its flight operations for the remainder of the week due to a surge in Covid cases among its air traffic control team. The airport will implement daily limits on the number of flights until Sunday as a direct response to staff shortages caused by the pandemic.
Almost one-third of Gatwick’s air traffic control personnel are currently absent due to illness, including Covid. As a result, the airport will cap daily flights at 800 movements. This equates to a reduction of 65 flights on Friday; 40 on Thursday; and 30 each on Wednesday and Sunday. Operations for Tuesday and Saturday remain unaffected for now.
This action follows earlier staff shortages at National Air Traffic Services (NATS), which is responsible for overseeing air traffic at Gatwick. The absence of controllers resulted in approximately 50 flights being cancelled last Sunday and another 80 on Monday.
Stewart Wingate, the chief executive of London Gatwick, commented: “It has been a challenging decision, but this will enable airlines to operate more reliable schedules and provide passengers with greater assurance against last-minute cancellations.”
He added: “We are collaborating closely with Nats to enhance resilience within the control tower and minimise disruptions as much as we can.”
Affected airlines are set to announce the specific flights to be axed, but most carriers remain optimistic that they can reroute affected passengers onto alternative flights.
This is the latest obstacle for Gatwick, which has faced a series of setbacks in recent months due to a scarcity of air traffic controllers. Over the summer, this shortage led to hundreds of cancellations and delays. Just last month, two major incidents resulted in significant cancellations – one of which was on 7th September when 40 flights were cancelled due to sudden illnesses among staff.
Nats apologised for the most recent disruptions and noted that they are focused on training additional air traffic controllers to bolster the resilience of their team. A NATS spokesperson said: “As 30% of our tower staff are currently unavailable due to various medical reasons, including COVID-19, we are unable to manage the original number of flights planned for this week.”
The current situation adds to the existing pressures on NATS, particularly after a technical glitch in its automated system led to widespread disruptions on August Bank Holiday Monday. A report revealed that the glitch resulted in more than 1,500 cancellations and 575 delays.
With an estimated 8,000 passengers disrupted due to the latest Covid outbreak, questions are arising about the level of contingency planning in place. Daniel Wilkes, a consultant psychiatrist, criticised NATS for its lack of preparation: “I just can’t believe the lack of contingency planning from Nats for staff sickness, given that this is happening repeatedly.”