2 September 1998

Misery at terminals as flight delays soar

By Paul Marston, Transport Correspondent

Air delays in Europe have reached their worst level for nine years with almost 30 per cent of scheduled flights taking off late, according to figures published yesterday.

The Association of European Airlines, which includes British Airways and British Midland, blamed congestion for two-thirds of the hold-ups and criticised governments for failing to improve the capacity and efficiency of air traffic control systems.

The most crowded airspace in Europe is over south-east England, where air traffic controllers have this year filed a record number of "overload" reports. The opening of a new air traffic control centre is four years behind schedule.

The AEA said the proportion of departures delayed by more than 15 minutes had risen sharply since February to 29.1 per cent in June, the highest monthly figure since 1989, and the second largest since the current recording format was adopted in the early 1980s.

The association described the situation as "dreadful", with passengers being subjected to "the misery of endless waiting in crowded terminals". It said that conditions could deteriorate further unless politicians became less "complacent" about the issue. Figures from the Civil Aviation Authority show that 25 per cent of scheduled flights took off more than 15 minutes late from Heathrow and Gatwick in the first three months of this year, a higher level than in the rest of Europe.

For other South-East and regional airports, the figure was between 14 per cent and 20 per cent. Delays to charter flights were much more prevalent, with an average of 45 per cent of departures taking place after the advertised time. The total number of flights in the first quarter was almost 10 per cent up on 1997.

The destination most likely to experience delay was Lyon, with 56 per cent of flights from British airports behind schedule. The additional wait for passengers averaged 35 minutes. Also badly affected were routes to Tenerife (47 per cent late), Malaga (45 per cent), Las Palmas and Alicante (both 40 per cent).

Aircraft bound for major European capitals such as Paris, Amsterdam, Madrid and Basle all stood a 30 per cent chance of being late. Among long-haul destinations, Tokyo and Washington were the worst affected, with 28 per cent of flights off schedule.

British Airways, whose profits this year have been well below City expectations, has suspended flights from Birmingham to New York and Toronto after losing more than 10 million on the route since its introduction five years ago.

In an effort to reduce costs, the carrier switched to smaller aircraft but failed to attract sufficient business travellers to make the service viable. A spokesman said it was hoped to restart the flights next year for the summer only.

BA managers have also decided to axe the three-times-a-week service from Heathrow to Osaka because of "worsening passenger demand" and the continuing fall of the yen.