But the lack of preparation for the foreseeable rebound in travel and the scale of staff shortages in vital areas like baggage handling are quite shocking. The aim of UK taxpayer-funded furlough schemes was for businesses to retain skilled workers and be ready to respond when demand picks up. It didn’t work in aviation.
Britain is not alone. The United States and parts of continental Europe are experiencing flight cancellations, labor shortages and crowded terminals. Yet overzealous cost-cutting, the impact of Brexit on the labor market and a relative lack of government financial support for aviation have exacerbated the misery of British travellers. More than 370 flights from UK airports were canceled in the week ending Tuesday, according to Cirium. A Tui AG co-pilot desperate to leave Manchester Airport after a delay of more than 24 hours resorted this week to loading the bags himself.
Heathrow Airport and contractors have laid off around 25,000 workers there since the start of the pandemic, a drop of a third. Gatwick Airport directly employs more than 40% fewer staff than in 2019. Airlines have cut around 30,000 jobs in the UK. Should we be surprised that the sector cannot cope?
True, UK airlines and airports received furlough funds, but the scheme ended in September – before the winter omicron outbreak grounded planes again. Overall government support for British aviation was far below that of Germany, France and the United States. UK airports tend to be private – Heathrow by Spain’s Ferrovial SA, Qatar Investment Authority and others – and some have paid big dividends in previous years, making ministers reluctant to help.
Pay cuts and ever-changing travel rules in Britain have made working in aviation unattractive. Thanks to Britain’s tight labor market, there are better options than hauling luggage in the rain at dawn or guiding impatient passengers through airport security. You can’t blame workers for choosing a less uncertain career.
Rehiring them is not easy because Brexit has put an end to the free movement of labor from the European Union. Airlines have used signing bonuses and sponsorship rewards to attract staff. Failing that, EasyJet Plc removed seats from planes so they could fly with fewer crews.
Even once they find recruits, vetting applicants can take months due to security checks. Worker references should explain any gaps in employment, a common occurrence during Covid.
In all fairness, airlines can’t do much about staff illness, air traffic control issues, or the burden of checking for additional vaccination documents sometimes still needed when flying internationally.
And not everyone flounders. Low-cost carrier Ryanair Holdings Plc flew more passengers last month than in May 2019. It recently told investors it had retained cabin crew and pilots during the pandemic and ensured that they flew regularly to stay qualified, which might explain why it fares better than Easyjet and British Airways, which cuts deeper.
Nevertheless, bottlenecks in peak periods add to the long list of indignities that air passengers already have to endure, which begin with the purchase of a ticket. Airlines are now even more determined to generate additional revenue from so-called ancillary services. Hence the endless website clicks and fees needed to pay for baggage, expedited boarding, seat selection and various extras.
Forget two hours, passengers are often encouraged to show up three hours before an international flight and then have to tag their own luggage before enduring dehumanizing airport security.
Computer outages are worryingly common and when flights are cancelled, rebookings can be a nightmare. And I doubt customers will forget how airlines have slowed refunds or issued vouchers during the pandemic to preserve cash.
Unfortunately, the damage to balance sheets from the pandemic and the continued race to the bottom to offer cheap fares are preventing aviation from becoming more resilient. So if you’ve already waited two years for a vacation abroad, consider waiting a few more months or settle for a staycation.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Chris Bryant is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies in Europe. Previously, he was a reporter for the Financial Times.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion