Millions of passengers facing substantial delays as airline punctuality plummets 

Punctuality in the skies has drastically deteriorated in the last five years – inflicting misery on millions of passengers and often leaving them out of pocket, according to a Which? analysis of almost 10 million flights.

The consumer champion looked at Civil Aviation Authority data from 2014 to 2018 and found that eight of the UK’s 10 busiest carriers have seen an increase in delays of more than an hour – with an estimated 17 million passengers affected last year alone.

Which? is concerned that some airlines and airports have failed to match the rapid growth in the number of flights with the resources needed to handle an increase in traffic – resulting in huge inconvenience and added expense for passengers when connecting flights or trains are missed. Yet these people are unlikely to be entitled to a penny in compensation.

Delays of one hour or more with Ryanair have more than doubled in the past five years, from three per cent in 2014, to nearly eight per cent. Easyjet also saw an increase from under five per cent in 2014 to almost nine per cent last year. The same could be said for Wizz Air who went from three per cent to over six per cent.

Thomas Cook passengers were the most likely to face a delay of at least an hour, with a one in nine (11.5%) chance of getting back from their holidays at least an hour late.

When it came to the airports, Stansted was the UK’s worst for delays by some margin – with more than twice as many departing flights delayed by an hour than at Heathrow, the busiest airport in the country.

Delays at Stansted have been getting worse every year for the last five years – and passengers now have a one in 10 chance (10%) of being delayed by an hour or more. At Heathrow, the number of flights delayed by an hour or more is just four per cent.

A key difference between the two airports is that Stansted has grown from handling fewer than 20 million passengers in 2014 to over 25 million passengers in 2018, while Heathrow has not made a significant increase to the number of flights it operates.

Thomas Cook, Ryanair and EasyJet have all increased the number of flights they operate by between 30 per cent and 70 per cent since 2014, according to the CAA data.

The airlines offered a range of explanations for their poor performance – including issues with weather, airspace or strikes.

The European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation, commonly known as Eurocontrol, told the consumer champion the carriers themselves were most often to blame for delays.

Other airlines have shown that it is possible to maintain punctuality as the skies get busier. Despite more than doubling its operations in the five years to 2018, Jet2 has reduced the number of delays of one hour or more from 5.9 per cent in 2014 to 5.3 per cent in 2018.

British Airways has also improved its punctuality. Down to 4.5 per cent of its arrivals delayed in 2018 compared to 4.7 per cent by more than an hour in 2014.

Dutch airline KLM was the least likely to be delayed, with just two per cent of flights held up by an hour or more in 2018. However, this is up from 1.5 per cent in 2014.

While there are no entitlements for passengers who are delayed for one hour, for delays of at least two hours, the law states that the airline must offer assistance in the way of food, drinks or accommodation if required.

To be entitled to compensation, passengers need to be delayed for three hours or more and the cause of the delay must be deemed to be within the airline’s control and not an ‘extraordinary circumstance’ such as adverse weather or baggage handler strikes.

Customers can choose between being rerouted on a different flight or getting a refund if their delay goes over five hours, just as if your flight had been cancelled. And each affected passenger is still entitled to claim flight delay compensation if the delay is not due to ‘extraordinary circumstances’.

While some airlines have complained that these compensation regulations are overly punitive, Which? believes the figures highlight why such measures are needed to give operators at least some incentive to work towards improving punctuality.

Which? Travel’s Naomi Leach, said: 

“It is unacceptable for passengers to be regularly inconvenienced with delays that can leave them hundreds of pounds out of pocket when they miss connections or transfers, are fined for picking up their hire car late or miss their train or cab home.

“While compensation is available for some delays, many passengers won’t qualify for compensation and will have far fewer options available to them. The worst airlines and airports need to ensure they have the staff and facilities to run an on-time service – and that they look after their customers when delays do occur.”


Notes to Editors: 

  1. Which? Travel analysed 10 million flights from the last five years from the CAA, showing the difference between the planned gate time and actual gate time of each aircraft arriving at and leaving from 26 major UK airports in 2018.

  2. Cancelled flights weren’t included. Which? focused on departure delays for airports, arrival delays for airlines, and departure and arrival delays relating to specific airport/airline routes.

  3. The 10 airlines compared were operating the most flights to and from the UK in 2018.

  4. The specific routes analysed were all those operated by the 10 busiest airlines which had at least 208 flights in 2018.

  5. Substantial delays are defined as delays of one hour or more.

  6. The DfT reports that there were of 284,397,095 passengers arriving and departing at UK terminals in 2017 (the latest figures available).


Rights of reply: 

  1. Thomas Cook explained its poor punctuality by claiming it cancels flights less frequently than rivals, suggesting that while passengers suffered long delays, it did at least get them to their destination. It also said that it has added more reserve aircraft to help get flights back on track quickly if delays happen.

  2. Ryanair said: “These Which? figures are inflated and inaccurate. They refer to 2018, which was the worst year on record for ATC delays in Europe.”

  3. EasyJet and Thomas Cook both claimed factors beyond their control were to blame for the delays, such as airspace, weather and strikes.

  4. Stansted responded to Which? saying it had posted significantly improved results in the first quarter of 2019, in part because Ryanair had ‘committed to a multi-million pound investment in additional resourcing and equipment to support ground operation.


Advice for passengers:

  1. If your flight is from an EU airport or into the EU on an EU carrier and it’s delayed for at least two hours, your airline should offer you assistance in the form of:

    1. Two free phone calls, emails or faxes

    2. Food and drink vouchers when appropriate

    3. A hotel room + transfers if required


  1. Which? has a free guide to find out how long you have to wait depending on the distance of your flight before you’re entitled to the free assistance.

  2. For more information on your rights if your flight is delayed or cancelled, visit:



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