Aviation minister Robert Courts has refuted suggestions that Brexit was one cause of staff shortages that led to recent widespread flight cancellations at UK airports.
He made his comments to MPs on the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy committee, which was holding a special session on Tuesday (June 14) about the problems.
When asked if Brexit was having a significant impact, he pointed to similar issues in the Netherlands, Ireland, France and the US, saying: “I think that is not likely. This seems to be a global issue.
“It’s the close-down of a sector and then opening up again, with all the disruption that inevitably causes. If there were aviation workers spare on the continent, you would expect them to be at Schiphol.”
As an example from another sector, the minister said 5,000 visas had been issued to tackle a shortage of HGV drivers but just 27 were taken up, suggesting Brexit had “little if anything” to do with the staff shortages.
He said he had “enormous sympathy” for the sector’s difficulties but, as a privately-run industry, it is aviation’s responsibility to ensure it has enough people available to operate the flights it has on sale, the minister said.
Richard Moriarty, Civil Aviation Authority chief executive, told the committee that 1% of flights are cancelled in the UK during normal times, but the rate was between 2%-4% over the May half-term holiday.
He said rates in comparable countries were at 3% in France, 11% in the Netherlands, and “high” in Dublin and the US.
However, other witnesses pointed to Brexit as a factor that compounded the recruiting issues which have been blamed for causing the cancellations in April, May and into June.
Broadcaster Simon Calder said that about 30% of staff working in the UK aviation sector before the pandemic had been European Union nationals, and now workers were being sought from a “more limited pool”.
Danny Brooks, founder and chief executive of Virtual Human Resources, said staff have “gone elsewhere” because of redundancies, the end of the furlough scheme in September 2021, work-life issues, and the “boom-bust” cycles of aviation – and they have found better jobs in other sectors or retired.
“The problems are compounded by the fact that we have got Brexit in the mix,” he said.
“The UK aviation sector has quite a high proportion of migrant workers from Europe who have gone to Amazon or other organisations or gone back home. They can’t come back now very easily.”
Karen Dee, chief executive at the Airport Operators Association, said the vetting of new recruits is speeding up now but “several hundreds” of people are still awaiting their final security clearance.
When asked if the problems will be fixed by the summer, she said: “I hope it will.”