Neither airports nor airlines in the UK have restored enough capacity into their operations to handle the predictable surge in passenger numbers as the skies reopen.
Flight TOM2106, operated by the UK’s largest tour operator, TUI UK, was scheduled to leave Manchester airport for the Spanish island of Tenerife in the early evening of May 30. The passengers boarded the plane but the plane never left the ground. Due to staff shortages, the ground crew were unable to load the luggage, resulting in the flight being axed.
Footage filmed by one of the passengers shows the pilot telling exasperated customers, three hours after they had boarded the flight: “Swissport (the outsourcing firm that runs cargo handling services for TUI) have abandoned us.” According to passengers, there was not even any staff to let them off the plane and the pilot ended up having to call the police to help them disembark.
TUI is a subsidiary of Europe’s largest tour operator, TUI, which has received multiple bailouts from the German government as well as €4.7 billion of loans to help weather the virus crisis. This week it cancelled hundreds of flights to or from UK airports, scuppering the travel or holiday plans of tens of thousands of Brits.
Who Needs Bags for Holidays Anyway?
This is the busiest weekend of the year so far for UK airports and the chaos is expected to worsen in the coming days. Things have gotten so bad that passengers are now being urged to take just one carry-on bag to help airlines cut down the time spent checking people in.
“It is one less thing to worry about,” said Andy Prendergast, national secretary of GMB union. “If people can check in online and do not take bags, that limits the disruption. It’s not a magic bullet but it does reduce the chance of there being problems.”
Following the UK government’s removal of all travel restrictions in March many Brits are looking to venture abroad for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began. And most are choosing to fly. The UK’s largest airport, Heathrow, has estimated that demand for flights over the summer holidays could reach as high as 85% of pre-pandemic levels. Spain, one of the UK’s most popular destinations, received 6.1 million foreign tourists in April, 10 times more than the same month of 2021 and just a million fewer than in April 2019.
In other words, mass tourism is back with a vengeance, though it is not clear for how long. The problem is that neither airports nor airlines have built enough capacity into their operations to handle the wholly predictable surge in passenger numbers. The result has been chaos at UK airports, with hundreds of flights cancelled and long delays for those lucky enough to fly. The chaos is expected to get worse over this long Jubilee weekend, with as many as two million people expected to (or at least hoping to) fly.
German-based TUI apologized for the disruption, blaming the cancellation of what it described as a “small number” of flights — nearly 200 — from Manchester Airport between now and June 30 on “ongoing challenges.” Those challenges include an acute lack of personnel. Like easyjet and British Airways, which have also cancelled hundreds of flights in recent days, TUI is massively understaffed.
The workers’ union Unite estimated in March 2021 that around 45,000 jobs in the UK’s aviation industry were shed during the first year of Covid-19 restrictions. To compound matters, the UK government began phasing out its furlough support before the travel recovery took hold, leaving airlines and airport groups with the stark choice of resuming paying the full salaries of the employees or just laying them off. Many of them opted for the latter.
Since the skies have reopened airlines have struggled to recruit enough new workers to fill the gaps. Drawn out employee security checks, which can take as long as three months, are not helping matters. Both the airlines and airports have turned to outsourcing firms to tackle the shortages, with predictably dire results.
Heathrow currently has 25% fewer workers than before the pandemic. Gatwick Airport directly employs more than 40% fewer staff than it had in 2019. Airlines have cut around 30,000 UK jobs. British Airways alone has cut 10,000 jobs in recent years. It has also used the pandemic to drive down workers’ pay and conditions. In the Summer of 2020 it became the first major company to embark on the “abhorrent practice of ‘fire and rehire’, sacking thousands of dedicated staff,” as Unite reported in October 2021.
“[F]ewer than 12 months later BA is championing its intention to recruit thousands of new staff, insultingly even asking those crew it sacked needlessly last year to re-apply on substantially reduced terms and conditions.
“It is yet another bad faith act from a business that should be focusing on repairing both a tattered workforce and customer relations, not cutting yet more corners in order to reward the boardroom.
“At the same time the company is also refusing to remove the additional threat to lay off existing employees in the lead up to Christmas and over the winter season. BA staff have no idea if they will have a job or a wage at the end of the year. This insecurity is deplorable. It must be removed.
Making Pilots Pay the BA Way
Now, BA, desperate for workers, has had to cancel thousands of flights in recent weeks. To fund the salaries for new workers, the airline is hoping to slash pilots’ pay by as much as 9% despite runaway inflation of almost 10%. Under a deal struck in July 2020, pilots begrudgingly accepted temporary pay reductions of 20%, dropping to 8% over the next two years. But they have rejected a new deal to continue receiving lower salaries until 2028.
One could perhaps understand BA’s penny-pinching the financial pickle it finds itself in. Like most companies in the travel and tourism sector, it has racked up unprecedented losses over the past two years. Its parent company, IAG, reported a record €7.4 billion loss in 2020 and a further €3.4 billion loss in 2021. It has also taken on huge levels of fresh debt and now faces spiraling prices of just about everything, including jet fuel.
But that hasn’t stopped senior management at IAG, including CEO Luis Gallego, from trying to award themselves a generous pay rise. Shareholders have responded with incredulity to the proposal, which includes an increase of Gallego’s share award from 100% of his salary to 150%. Aviation analyst Sally Gethin said the move was a “really bad look” for the company, especially given its its subsidiary British Airways has been delivering “shoddy service, flight cancellations and delays.” to customers.
Bullshit Essential Jobs
Staff shortages have long been a bane in the aviation industry though the biggest problem has traditionally been with pilot shortages — something that is affecting US airlines right now. As the FT points out, in the UK it is largely in the less glamorous ancillary roles such as “the check-in staff, baggage handlers and the people who put the steps out on the tarmac” where the shortages are most pronounced:
Shortages in those areas are the cause of many of the current challenges. Thirty years ago many such roles were handled in-house within airlines. Staff benefited from perks such as cheap travel and the status of working for a flag carrier. No longer in most cases. Such bonuses are not on offer at outsourcers such as Swissport, Menzies Aviation and DHL.
Trying to lure workers back into these essential but poorly paid roles is likely to be an uphill struggle, unless the aviation companies begin offering much better terms and conditions. But if they start doing that only with the new recruits, it risks alienating established workers. According to the FT, “many positions only command around £10 an hour, despite offering antisocial shift patterns, delays to sick pay, angry customers to contend with, and up to three months’ wait before workers can start.” In other words, bullshit essential jobs.
But as in the US, the times appear to have changed. Low-paid workers can afford to be a lot pickier these days:
The aviation industry is trying to recruit for the roles at a time where there has been a shift towards many more vacancies in lower-skilled occupations. Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies earlier this year found that there were more than double the number of vacancies for warehouse workers in the five months to February than before the pandemic, with vacancies for drivers 80 per cent higher.
If the aviation industry doesn’t address its staffing crisis crisis soon, there is a risk of an even larger exodus as workers succumb to burnout and fatigue. As an anonymous cabin crew member notes in a Guardian article, travel chaos can have a nasty side effect:
Customers are always more aggressive if they have a difficult time in the airport, and as cabin crew you’re the next person in a uniform they’re going to see. Recently, on one flight, a man chased me, shouting, down the galley after the captain announced delays would mean some passengers would miss their connecting flights.
While Brexit has probably exacerbated the problems, since quite a large number of lower-paid jobs at UK airports were filled by EU workers, flight cancellations are also rife at airports on the mainland. They include Schiphol, where a shortage of security staff has led to long waits at baggage checkpoints in recent weeks, and Dublin, which has been the scene of long lines and flight cancellations in recent days. The US also suffered thousands of flight cancellations over Memorial Day Weekend, which have also been largely blamed on staff shortages, in part due to rising COVID-19 cases among workers.
Blame Game Begins
Back in the UK, the blame game has begun. Airlines are blaming the cancellations on government regulations requiring that new recruits must pass stringent security checks that can take up to three months to complete. For its part, Downing Street insists the aviation industry is responsible for the staff shortages.
“You need to have the planning in place to deal with your customers,” Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab told ITV News. “I think it’s clear that there’s been a lack of planning and a lack of preparation for the resurgent demand that was not just predictable, but predicted.”
The union Unite largely concurs with the government’s version of events. “The industry is very much reaping what it has sown,” said its national officer, Oliver Richardson. “Not only has the existing economic model been incapable of delivering decent and sustainable jobs, but this has been compounded by the behaviour of some employers who during the pandemic opportunistically slashed jobs and cut pay and conditions.”
The bad news for air travellers is that flight delays and cancellations are likely to be an ongoing feature of the travel experience this summer, as passenger traffic continues to rise amid persistent labor shortages. Air Council International — Europe’s trade body for airports — has warned that delays are inevitable at two-thirds of European airports this summer.