Blank screens cause chaotic scenes at Gatwick airport

Simon Calder
Destination row: the whiteboard at Gatwick airport's South Terminal after the normal departure screens failed: Rob Fahey

Tens of thousands of travellers at Gatwick airport went back to basics on one of the busiest days of the year.

In the early hours of Monday morning, a fibre-optic cable used by Vodafone to carry flight departure information was severed, causing the screens at the Sussex airport to go blank.

The latest airport IT failure meant that passengers were directed to their gates by whiteboards and shouted instructions. Amid the confusion, at least 200 passengers missed their flights.

“Broken monitors and a tiny white-board for announcing gates,” tweeted one passenger, Elizabeth Humphries. “Thank goodness I have eagle-vision and can read messy writing from a distance.”

The problem took at least 12 hours to solve. Shortly after 5pm, a spokesperson for the airport said: “The issue with Gatwick’s digital screens has been resolved and flight information is being displayed as normal.

“The airport’s manual contingency plan – which included displaying information manually in the terminals and having extra staff on hand to help direct passengers – worked well and tens of thousands of passengers departed on time.

“Gatwick would like to apologise to any passengers who were inconvenienced by this issue.”

While Gatwick has two runways, they can never be used simultaneously – making it effectively the busiest single-runway airport in the world. The first wave of flights each morning has to get away on time to avoid jeopardising schedules for the remainder of the day.

Some of the 200-plus travellers whose flights left while they were trying to find the right gate are reported to have spent hundreds of pounds on alternative flights.

Before online check-in became common, such a failure would not be so significant. The traditional system required passengers to go to a desk where their boarding passes would be issued, usually showing the departure gate.

But because so many passengers check in online, their first opportunity to identify the correct gate is from the departure screens “airside”. When working correctly, they inform passengers if the gate is open, whether boarding has begun or if a flight is closing.

A spokesperson for the biggest airline at Gatwick, easyJet, said: “easyJet did everything possible to minimise any disruption and communicated with our passengers travelling this morning to check the status of their flight and gate information on easyJet’s Flight Tracker on the app or website.

“Any passengers who missed flights are able to transfer to another flight free of charge or receive a refund if they would prefer not to fly.”

British Airways said its schedule was operating normally, with extra staff in the terminal keeping customers up to date with gate information.

The chaotic scenes shared on social media were similar to previous IT-related failures. On Christmas Eve 2013, flooding hit the power supply at Gatwick’s North Terminal, wrecking the travel plans of many thousands of passengers.

Last year, British Airways cancelled hundreds of flights over the May bank holiday when a vital power supply was inadvertently turned off. Passengers hit out at the latest failure on social media. “This tiny whiteboard is the only departures information in Gatwick airport right now,” tweeted Rob Fahey.

“Every screen is offline. Utter chaos. This is a signature flourish at the end of a short trip that’s been full of reminders of how badly the UK’s infrastructure is crumbling.”

Meanwhile someone who tweets as “Mr__Wilson” asked: “Have we got two whiteboards? One for business class and the other for economy? Asking for a friend.”

Several UK airports are predicting that this is likely to be the busiest week in their history.