Repatriation flights from the inferno on Rhodes are landing back in the UK with empty seats, i can reveal, as British holidaymakers complain that they have struggled to get off the Greek island.
Images obtained by i show an EasyJet flight with several empty seats, which one passenger said was “less than half full”, while Jet2 admitted its first repatriation mission carried less than half of the capacity for its next evacuations flights.
Tui also admitted that their initial evacuation flights “were not completely full”, blaming power outages for “compromised comms” with its customers.
Up to ten thousand British holidaymakers are believed to be on Rhodes as wildfires sweep across the southern part of the island, devastating homes and cutting off hotels.
Holidaymakers said they have struggled to find a way off the island, with one taking a ferry to Turkey to escape the inferno and another being told her family cannot be flown home until August.
But despite the scale of the emergency, some Britons escaping Rhodes on repatriation flights told i that the aircraft they travelled on had dozens of spare seats.
Jet2 confirmed that its first repatriation flight to the UK had carried just 95 passengers, despite other repatriation flights having capacity for between 189 and 220 people. The airline said it had four repatriation flights planned for Monday evening and all were fully booked.
EasyJet said that the “majority” of seats were booked but that “some customers did not show up at the airport”.
Jake Nurse and Robert Small, who flew into Gatwick from Rhodes, said that their EasyJet repatriation flight was “half empty” when the plane doors had closed and the aircraft was on the runway.
The pair said they were surprised to find the aircraft so empty, as the flights had been listed as being sold out on the EasyJet website the day before. Photos from the flight showed dozens of empty plane seats.
“We had a flight booked for Wednesday 26th as that was the earliest flight we could get I’m sure there’s loads of other people in that situation,” said Mr Nurse.
The pair said it was only after contacting UK consular assistance, with help from airport handlers Swissport, that they managed to get onto the repatriation flight.
“If it wasn’t for pestering Swissport, this wouldn’t have happened today, yet they are flying this plane half empty,” he said.
Mr Small said that EasyJet had handled the flights out “so poorly”, saying the airline had delayed his original flight out by 14 hours and then again on Sunday, when it didn’t have enough room to fit them on the next flight.
“We’ve had such a nightmare, we are not the last ones trying to get out,” he said.
Rebecca Edwards, 36, and David Hollings, 41, were on one EasyJet repatriation flight that landed at Gatwick around 3.45pm. They said there were about seven or eight seats empty on the flight.
“My mum booked them for us on Sunday, because the internet was so spotty. She said it was the last two on the flight but there were still seats available, and when I looked on the Saturday night the flight said it was sold out,” Ms Edwards said.
“I don’t know how my mum managed that but we are very grateful that she did.”
British family flee Rhodes on ferry after flying out to find hotel already evacuated
Rachael Price and her family were forced to flee Rhodes on a ferry to Turkey, after wildfires cut off the hotel they had booked to stay in and they were taken unaware to a local school in the middle of the night.
Ms Price had booked a Tui package holiday to the Greek island with her two daughters, aged 16 and 20, and her husband, with their flight due to leave East Midlands airport at 7.30pm on Saturday.
The lecturer said she had heard about fires in the area before boarding but was repeatedly assured at the airport that if the Tui app had not cancelled the trip, it was safe to go and their holiday would be unaffected.
“As I was handing in the boarding passes, I checked again about the situation in Rhodes. The person checking the passes made a joke, saying ‘you’ll be fine as long as you don’t burn’. I thought if they were joking about it, it couldn’t be serious,” she said. “We didn’t leave until 8.30pm, which I now realise was because people were pulling their bags off the plane. On the aircraft, the pilot said there was lovely temperatures in Rhodes. Tui said nothing. There was absolutely no news.
“When we got to the airport, we were sent to a Tui rep who said our hotel had been evacuated. They told us we would be taken to an equivalent hotel, or at the very least one star below. It was an out and out lie, because we got on the bus there was no Tui rep and we are all just unceremoniously dumped in a school.”
Ms Price, from Birmingham, wasn’t told where she was going and still doesn’t know exactly where the family were taken. The family struggled to rebook flights back to the UK, with most sold out and others too expensive.
Another British family suggested they book a ferry journey to Turkey, just an hours boat ride, and although most of the ferries were fully booked, they managed to get tickets out of the island for 9am on Monday morning.
Ms Price said she was “disappointed” to see that planes had been leaving Rhodes partially empty, despite her and other families’ battles to get home.
“My response is disappointment and a tired eye roll,” she said. “They could have found people to help by approaching people. No one approached us or anyone around us in the airport. There are still people in the school, hoping to go home in a few days, and accepting their fate as they believe Tui cannot do any more.”
Now, the family have booked a hotel in Turkey for the two week period they were due to be in Rhodes and are now attempting to rebuild their holiday there – but said they intend to seek compensation from Tui.
“Tui shouldn’t have flown us out,” she said. “I now know, having spoken to people in the school, that they were being evacuated off the beaches or evacuated from their hotels, with ash falling on their pizza, by the time we set off.
“We were just an extra burden on the Greek people: they don’t need us. We got no food or water from Tui. We had no food vouchers. We asked for help to book a flight back, and the reps told us that wasn’t their job. We asked if we’d get a refund if we booked them, and they said they didn’t know. We’re lucky compared to many people, but they shouldn’t have taken us.”
The UK Foreign Office is understood to be in close contact with the airlines and monitoring the situation closely, but a source insisted that the repatriation flights were a matter for the airlines rather than the Government.
It could not confirm how many Britons had been evacuated and how many were still on the island.
British holidaymakers stuck on Rhodes took to social media this weekend to plead for help from airlines to get them off the island.
The travel providers have been criticised for continuing to fly tourists out to the island even as blazes forced people to flee homes and hotels.
The Greek Prime Minister has said his government was waging “a war” with the wildfires, warning it would be a “difficult” summer.
A spokesperson for EasyJet said that it had put on two extra repatriation flights from Rhodes, in addition to the nine scheduled flights operating.
“The majority of seats were booked however some customers did not show up at the airport. Our ground staff also proactively spoke to people at the airport in case they needed a seat on the flight. We are doing all possible to assist customers in Rhodes.”
A Tui spokesperson said: “Flights that came back to the UK overnight were not completely full but, we have transferred hundreds of people back to the UK overnight with compromised comms due to power outages and are doing our best to get those who want to return in the coming days back as soon as we can.”
A Jet2 spokesperson said: “Jet2.com have four full repatriation flights departing tonight.”