Staff shortages, strikes and delays look unlikely to ease, reports Ian Taylor
Flight cancellations and delays dominate the news, the concerns of holidaymakers and the workloads of many in the sector.
Nothing has stemmed the flow of last-minute cancellations despite months to recruit staff since the disruption at Easter, and the government speeding up security vetting and relaxing slot rules to allow carriers to slim schedules and other measures in a ‘22-point plan’.
Airlines and airports have not handled the disruption well, barely keeping up with events. On Monday of last week, British Airways reported its cancellations were complete having cut 11% of its schedule. The following day it announced a further 10,300 cancellations.
Total UK flight cancellations so far this summer are put at 41,000. But it is still not enough.
On Monday, Heathrow ordered airlines at Terminals 3 and 5 to cancel 61 flights immediately due to a shortage of ground handlers.
On Tuesday, Heathrow capped daily departure numbers at 100,000 – meaning fresh cancellations affecting up to 4,000 passengers a day – and demanded carriers stop selling summer flights from the airport.
The reasons for the chaos are familiar – pandemic-era staff cuts, uncertainty about when travel would resume, the end of furlough long before restrictions were lifted, an acute labour shortage and crisis in recruitment, high rates of Covid and more.
The problems are pan-European, but the busiest airports and airlines using them are worst affected. That is why Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, BA and easyJet have been hardest hit – through with problems also at Birmingham and Bristol.
Third-party ground handlers – responsible for check-in, bag handling and aircraft turnarounds – are the hardest-pressed sector and remain seriously understaffed.
Ryanair and Jet2 have escaped the worst not only by using less-busy airports but by employing their own ground handlers. Jet2 felt confident enough last week to increase summer capacity, adding 865,000 Atol-protected holidays to the 3.8 million it was already licensed for. But Jet2 and Ryanair – which has been operating a record 3,000 flights day – are the exception.
The situation is no better in Europe. Lufthansa withdrew economy short-haul and US tickets from sale for a period last week and KLM stopped selling flights to Amsterdam.
European air traffic management body Eurocontrol reported “chaos, with 1.5km queues at Schiphol, issues at Dublin, Palma and other places causing trouble throughout the network”. It noted: “Air traffic management delays back at the level of 2019, with fewer flights, the war in Ukraine diverting traffic into Germany and France, and strike action driven by inflation.”
EasyJet chief Johan Lundgren suggested the cancellations and delays affecting the carrier had “stabilised” at the weekend but warned: “There will continue to be challenges in the remainder of the summer.”
He is right. Despite the advance cancellations, we face a summer of worsening air traffic delays, strikes and absence rates due to Covid exacerbating staff shortages when demand is at its peak.