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Gatwick and its biggest customer, easyJet, row over who should shoulder the greater blame for the chaos that unfolded at the West Sussex airport on Christmas Eve, in an ill-tempered hearing at Parliament.
Gatwick and easyJet have locked horns over who was to blame for the chaos that reached “biblical proportions” at the airport on Christmas Eve, leaving passengers stranded for up to 12 hours in “Third World” conditions.
EasyJet, Gatwick’s biggest customer, accused the West Sussex airport of failing to respond quickly enough to the crisis at its north terminal, in an ill-tempered hearing in front of the Commons Transport Select Committee on Tuesday.
EasyJet has lost £2 million from the fiasco, which was caused by flooding and consequent power failures at the airport’s north terminal, MPs were told.
Jason Holt, head of easyJet’s operations at Gatwick, accused the airport of failing to provide enough staff to bus passengers, who had expected to take a flight from the north terminal, to the south terminal, which was unaffected.
Gatwick only admitted to a shortage of drivers to transport passengers at one o’clock in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, easyJet claimed, more than eight hours after the airport’s management had been alerted to the risk that the nearby River Mole would flood.
Had the airline known about the driver shortage earlier, it would have cancelled more flights rather than leaving passengers waiting for hours, Mr Holt suggested.
Only four buses were available to transport thousands of passengers from one terminal to another.
Mr Holt said he was met with scenes of “biblical proportion” at Gatwick’s north terminal on Christmas Eve morning, when he sought to address 3,000 “distressed” passengers, many of whom had young children and babies.
“In that process…I didn’t see many Gatwick people,” Mr Holt told the committee.
Gatwick’s chief executive Stewart Wingate, who was on annual leave in Newcastle on Christmas Eve but was responding to the crisis by telephone, said he was “very sorry” for the disruption caused.
Some 62 departures and 59 arrivals were cancelled.
Mr Wingate said the airport took the decision not to cancel more flights and instead sought to bus passengers to a different terminal as it was Christmas Eve.
“We fell short but we did so in trying to get as many of our passengers to their Christmas destinations as we could,” Mr Wingate said, insisting that the airport had not seen a similar flood since 1967.
Ultimately, Mr Wingate admitted, the plan to move so many passengers to a different terminal was a “step too far” – both for the airport but also for easyJet.
Gatwick has offered passengers whose flights were cancelled on Christmas Eve £100 of high street vouchers as a gesture of goodwill but Mr Wingate stressed: “I can’t shoulder all of the responsibility as the airport operator.”
The airport chief added: “Ultimately it is not the airport that cancels flights.”
EasyJet has pointed out that Gatwick also suffered flooding two months earlier, on October 16, but on that occasion, a contingency plan to transport passengers from one terminal to another was successful as more bus drivers were on hand.
MPs on the Transport Select Committee questioned whether the flooding, which caused problems with the distribution of power at the north terminal, would weaken the airport’s case for a second runway.
Gatwick was last month short-listed by Sir Howard Davies’s Airports Commission as one of two possible locations to build new runway capacity in the South East of England.
However, Mr Wingate insisted that Gatwick still had an “exceptionally strong case” for a second runway and the West Sussex airport, which is carrying out an investigation into the events of December 24, would make “whatever investment is needed” to protect its facilities against flooding in future.
MPs were told that the airport only received a warning that the River Mole was going to flood 30 minutes before the damage was caused.
“Historically we were told that there was very little risk of flooding to the north terminal. It was an exceptionally low risk,” Mr Wingate said.
The airport had previously been advised that the risk of flooding at the north terminal would be “between a once every 100 years and once every 1,000 years event”.