Thousands of passengers travelling to or from Heathrow Airport have had flights cancelled or diverted, or are facing long flight delays after staff absences and high winds led to air traffic control restrictions being imposed.
More than 30 departing flights have been cancelled since 9am, with at least 28 arrivals grounded, analysis by The Independent found. At least 10,000 passengers are thought to be affected.
Three-quarters of those cancelled have been British Airways flights to and from short-haul destinations including Madrid, Milan, Berlin and Oslo.
Aer Lingus, Brussels Airlines, KLM, Lufthansa, SAS and Swiss also canceled flights from and to their hubs.
Air traffic control (ATC) restrictions were imposed early on Sunday morning, with staff shortage partly responsible. It follows large-scale cancellations at Gatwick in September due to an outbreak of Covid among controllers working in the tower.
Just 25 flights per hour were permitted to arrive earlier on Sunday, The Independent was told. Normally 40-45 aircraft can land each hour.
“Due to short notice staff absence in the tower and strong winds at Heathrow, temporary ATC restrictions are currently in place,” a spokesperson for air traffic control provider Nats said.
“We are working hard to minimise disruption, working closely with Heathrow airport and airlines. Passengers should check the status of their flight with their airline. Restrictions of this sort are only ever applied to ensure safety and we apologise for any inconvenience caused.”
All restrictions have now been lifted, but disruption continues. Two planeloads of BA passengers touched down at other London airports. The service from Baltimore went to Stansted, while the arrival from Chicago circled above Bristol for about 30 minutes before diverting to Gatwick.
A Heathrow spokesperson said: “Due to strong wind and staff absence in air traffic control, temporary air traffic control restrictions were implemented at Heathrow earlier today.
“ATC continue to implement temporary regulation due to the weather conditions this afternoon.
“We want to reassure passengers that our colleagues are working in close collaboration with our airline and air traffic control partners to get them safely on their journeys as quickly as possible. We encourage passengers to check with their airline for the latest information.”
Despite the cancellations only affecting short-haul flights, many passengers complained of having missed connections further afield.
“We’ve been held on the tarmac at MCR [Manchester] Airport because Heathrow accepting reduced number of flights,” one passenger wrote on Twitter/X.
“Not expected to depart for a further 2 hours, which means missing our transfer to New York. My 40th birthday celebration is turning disastrous.”
The flight operated three hours late.
A British Airways spokesperson said: “Air traffic control restrictions imposed on all airlines at London Heathrow mean we’ve had to make some adjustments to our short-haul schedule. We’ve contacted affected customers to apologise and offer them rebooking options or a full refund.”
The airline said most customers on cancelled flights should still be able to reach their destination today, however for some the next available flight would be on Monday.
Many other connecting passengers faced long waits after flights to key Continental hubs including Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Munich were grounded.