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Tens of thousands of passengers face disruption after Gatwick runway closure – your rights

Tens of thousands of passengers faced delays and cancellations last week after the runway at Gatwick Airport was closed several times due to reports of drones being flown nearby – if you're affected, here's what you need to know.

Flights in and out of the UK's second busiest airport were suspended at about 9pm on Wednesday after two drones were seen near the West Sussex airfield.

At 11pm on Thursday, Gatwick Airport reopened the runway and began running a "limited number" of scheduled flights, but disruption then occured again on Friday.

Update 9am Monday 24 December: The disruption appears to have ended for now – but for the latest official updates, see the Gatwick Airport website

See our Flight Delays guide for more information on your rights. 

My flight from Gatwick is cancelled – can I get a refund or alternative flight?

If your flight is cancelled the airline must give you a choice of two options, regardless of the reason for the cancellation and how much notice you're given.

You can choose between:

  • A full refund. This includes money back for both legs of your journey if you have booked a return ticket.

  • An alternative flight. If you still want to travel, your airline must find an alternative flight. This has to be a) at the earliest opportunity, or b) at the passenger's leisure, subject to  seat availability.

    It's worth noting you may be entitled to ask for a flight on an alternative airline, if the one you're offered by the original airline is inconvenient. If you find a better flight with an alternative airline you can ask to be booked onto that instead – don't just book it yourself.

    There's no firm rule on when your airline has to agree to put you on an alternative airline, but the regulator the Civil Aviation Authority says you should be re-routed on the same day as your original flight – though of course this may be difficult as many airlines are affected by the Gatwick problems.

In the first instance contact the airline to see what help it can offer – you shouldn't be charged for switching to an alternative flight.

If you need to fly from a different airport, the airline should arrange your transport or cover reasonable costs – so ask about this when it is rebooking your flight, before deciding how you'll get to the new airport.

If you're flying to Gatwick on an EU airline you will also be covered by the rules above. If not see our Flight Delays guide. 

I'm stuck at the airport – what are my rights?

If you were stuck at Gatwick Airport because you were waiting for an alternative flight or your flight was delayed, depending on the length of the delay, the airline is obliged to provide:

  • Food and drink. Your airline should provide food and drink (or vouchers to buy them) if you're delayed more than two hours on a short-haul flight, three hours on medium haul (eg, Manchester to Malaga) or four hours for long haul.

    If it's unable to, you can buy your own and claim back, but make sure you keep receipts – remember only reasonable expenses are covered; it's unlikely you'd be able to claim for alcohol, for example. Check if your airline's website has any guidance on what it'll cover.

  • A 'means of communication'. In practice this just means the airline's likely to reimburse you for the cost of any relevant calls you make.

  • Accommodation if needed. If delayed overnight you're entitled to a hotel, and the airline must also provide transport to and from it. Ideally it would book the hotel so always check first, but if it's unable to help, try to find a reasonably priced one and keep all receipts – again it's unlikely to cover a luxury hotel.

If you're delayed for five hours you can ask for a full refund, including any unused parts of your journey. If you opt for the refund, however, you will no longer be entitled to the care and assistance above. 

If you're flying to Gatwick on an EU airline you will also be covered by the rules above. If not see our Flight Delays guide. 

Am I due compensation?

Under EU rules, airlines must often pay additional compensation for delayed or cancelled flights if the cause was something within their control.

However, the drones aren't likely to be classed as something within an airline's control, so you're unlikely to get additional compensation.

You may be able to travel by train for free

In the wake of the disruption, London North Eastern Railway (LNER) said that anybody who had a flight ticket from Gatwick to Edinburgh could use this to travel on a train service for free.

Govia Thameslink Railway also said that passengers with a rail ticket to or from Gatwick could travel to or from Luton Airport at no extra cost, while people who needed to get to King's Cross to travel to Edinburgh on LNER and who had an airline ticket could travel for free to King's Cross/St Pancras, Stevenage or Peterborough on its services. Thameslink tickets to Gatwick Airport were also accepted on Southwestern Railway services to Southampton Airport Parkway.

If you had a Thameslink, Southern or Gatwick Express ticket dated 20 December, it was valid on the 21 December, and if you had a ticket dated 21 December it was valid on the 22 December. 

If you need to refund your ticket or change it to a different network, Govia Thameslink Railway will waive any admin fees.

What if I've lost out on hotels, car hire etc?

Flight cancellations or delays can have a large number of knock-on costs, and unfortunately the EU rules don't cover what's known as 'consequential loss' – ie, if you've booked non-refundable hotels, car hire or other parts of your holiday and are unable to use them because your flight's delayed.

First, check if you can cancel these bookings and get a refund, as part of the T&Cs or as a goodwill gesture from the provider.

As an alternative, it's worth checking if you're covered on your travel insurance – though there are reports some insurers have told customers they wouldn't cover a drone incident. The Association of British Insurers has issued the following guidance: "Where illegal drone activity has grounded or diverted flights, as with all flight cancellations or disruption, you should speak to your airline or travel company first who will have certain responsibilities under the law.

"For additional travel disruption costs, such as missed hotel bookings or already paid-for activities that you can no longer make, you should speak to your travel insurer as these may be covered under the terms of your travel insurance depending on the type of cover you have bought."

We've also heard of a small number of cases where a credit card company has paid out for consequential losses after a Section 75 claim – though there's no guarantee this will work for everyone. The Financial Ombudsman Service has said it will depend on each individual case and factors such as whether you still manage to use part of your bookings.

What does Gatwick Airport say?

Chief executive Stewart Wingate released a statement on 20 December saying: "On behalf of everyone at Gatwick I would like to repeat how sorry we are for the inconvenience this criminal behaviour has caused passengers and we share their real anger and frustration that it has happened. 

"This is a highly targeted activity which has been designed to close the airport and bring maximum disruption in the run up to Christmas. We are working very closely with the police and the security services to try to resolve this for passengers. 

“We hope passengers appreciate that we must and will always prioritise their safety over everything else.

"We are all working flat out to minimise inconvenience and have additional staff in both terminals assisting passengers who are waiting. Regrettably we are still not in a position to say when it will be safe to reopen the airport. As soon as we can we will."

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