UK airports and carriers are suffering severe labor shortages, at a time of pent-up demand. Throw COVID-19 absences into the mix and it’s a perfect storm for an industry desperately trying to claw itself out of an existential crisis.
For the first time in almost two and a half years I am back in my native UK, able finally to see family and friends as well as get a taste of what life is actually like in so-called “new-normal,” post-Brexit Britain. In my 22 years of living abroad this is the longest period of time I have spent away from the country, but it is a fly-by visit. Having arrived on Friday lunchtime, my wife and I are scheduled to board our return flight to Barcelona tomorrow (Tuesday) afternoon.
As the title of this piece implies, that may be easier said than done, given that some UK airports, in particular Manchester and Heathrow, and ferry ports have been plunged into chaos by a turbulent blend of surging passenger numbers, acute labor shortages (partly due to soaring COVID-19 cases among both ground and flight staff), IT outages, bad weather and Brexit chaos.
The chaos coincides with the start of the Easter holidays in many parts of the country. Following the removal of all COVID-19 travel restrictions, many Brits are looking to venture abroad for the first time since the pandemic began. The UK’s flagship airport, Heathrow, has estimated that demand for flights over the summer holidays could reach 85% of pre-pandemic levels. In February alone Spain received 3.15 million tourists, 1000% more than in the same month of 2021 and only 29% less than in February 2020, just before the lockdowns began.
In other words, mass tourism is making a comeback, though it is not clear for how long. To meet the pent-up demand many British airports have expanded their workforce in recent weeks. Heathrow, for example, recently said it is hiring an extra 12,000 employees to deal with the summer rush. It may not be enough.
The airport is already struggling to cope with the Easter rush. On Monday morning, reports surfaced that British Airways and Easyjet had cancelled over 200 flights each, leaving tens of thousands of passengers stranded. Easyjet alone cancelled 222 flights over the weekend and pulled another 62 of those scheduled for Monday, blaming the cancellations on staff shortages resulting from a surge in COVID-19 cases among employees. This comes as no surprise given that roughly one in 13 British people are currently infected by the virus, a record level, according to the latest estimates from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
Problems are also surfacing in Spain as airports brace for record post-pandemic numbers of UK arrivals, with Brexit travel rules adding to congestion. This was certainly the case with our outbound flight from Barcelona, which was delayed by half an hour due to the long lines at passport control. Palma de Mallorca alone handled more than 250,000 passengers this past weekend, as German and British tourists returned en masse.
Back in the UK many of Monday’s cancelled flights were announced at short notice on Saturday, leaving many travelers bereft of alternatives. Easyjet expects to cancel hundreds more flights this week as the disruption snowballs. An EasyJet spokesperson said:
“With the current levels of sickness we also decided to make some cancellations in advance which were focused on consolidating flights where we have multiple frequencies so customers have more options to rebook their travel, often on the same day…
“Unfortunately it has been necessary to make some additional cancellations today. We are sorry for any inconvenience this may cause to customers on affected flights.
“Customers have been contacted and provided with their options which include rebooking onto an alternative flight or receiving a voucher or full refund. We are very sorry for any inconvenience caused.”
England was one of the first countries in Europe to remove all Covid-19 restrictions, including compulsory mask wearing. The wholesale removal of restrictions was primarily an act of political expediency by a government brought to its knees by an endless succession of corruption scandals. The Boris Johnson cabinet had been caught flouting so many of the restrictions it itself had implemented that either it or the rules had to go. It chose the latter.
Mask wearing is still compulsory for both Easyjet passengers and crew on most flights. But it is not compulsory in most other places in England. People appear to be dumping their masks en masse, as my wife and I discovered when we boarded a cross-county train on Saturday. Barring an elderly gentleman behind us, we were the only passengers in our half-full carriage wearing masks.
The chaos at the airports is not just the result of surging passenger numbers and COVID-induced staff shortages; long-standing IT issues have also played a part. According to a report in the Daily Mail, arrivals to Heathrow are facing serious problems at passport control, “with passengers complaining that just a third of the available e-gates are in use.” This was also acknowledged by a British Airways statement:
“We’re aware of an issue impacting the e-gates, which are staffed and operated by Border Force. This issue is impacting a number of ports of entry, and our teams are working closely with Border Force to resolve this as quickly as possible.”
British Airways has also suffered outages to its own IT system that has disrupted many of its flights departing from Terminal 5. This is the second time it has experienced a significant IT outage at Terminal 5 in the past five days.
These are not new problems. There have been multiple instances of e-gate outages at Heathrow and other airports over the past six months. On September 24, 2021, Britain’s biggest airports were plunged into chaos after an IT failure crashed their electronic passport gates, causing passenger queues of nearly three hours. As the Daily Telegraph reported at the time, the 15 airports affected by the “technical failure” in the e-gates that read passengers’ passports and locator forms on arrival included Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Manchester:
The gates’ digital readers were cut off from databases against which they make automatic checks of watch lists for criminals and terrorist suspects.
It meant Border Force officers had to revert to checking passengers’ travel documents manually using desk-based computer links, causing queues of up to 160 minutes.
A similar problem occurred at Heathrow less than two weeks later, on October 6. Five weeks after that, on November 11, another national outage of self-service barriers left passengers arriving at airports around the country waiting for up to two hours at border controls.
Using biometric identifiers, the e-passport gates can process as many as five passengers every 45 seconds, providing a fast, effective system of clearing the border that minimizes the need for human labor. But when they fail, which happens quite often, the work falls to staff on passport control desks. And the UK Border Force, like so many organizations these days, is suffering from acute staff shortages. Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye said: “We are particularly concerned over Border Force’s ability to scale-up to meet demand”
As for British Airways, it has been under pressure for years to improve its IT systems after a string of outages dating all the way back to 2017. On that occasion, more than 75,000 passengers were impacted when one of the company’s data centers suffered an outage and services failed to shift to the backup facility. In 2019, another BA outage led to at least 15,000 passengers having their journeys canceled.
The economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the endless disruption, layoffs and furloughs, has made matters a lot worse. Like most economies, the UK faces a serious crunch in hiring key workers — at least at a price companies are willing to pay. With official inflation at a decades high of 6.2% and labor shortages affecting many key economic sectors, essential workers have far more bargaining power than before. But many companies in the travel and tourism sector have limited resources after racking up non-stop losses for the past two years and as prices of just about everything, including energy, surge.
Throw COVID-19 absences into the mix, and it’s a perfect storm for an industry desperately trying to claw itself out of the mother of all crises. Its ability to do so will depend on how long the current staff absences and labor shortages last.