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Travel Chaos Isn't Ending Soon

June 8, 2022.

With the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, many people have been eager to resume travel, with some wanting a quick weekend break, others a longer holiday and still more wanting to do business the way they used to. All however, have found their desires shattered as huge delays have occurred at airports, with flights widely cancelled - some quite literally at the last minute.

Understandably most would-be travellers are angered and upset, wanting to know why airlines have not been better prepared for the resumption of big numbers wanting to fly. Airlines are usually blamed for any problems, whether its their fault or not but often, whatever the difficulty, it isn't the fault of the airline. Neither is it the fault of the airports at which delays and cancellations are happening. And in this instance, although airlines and airports do have some responsibility, the real culprit isn't even in the air travel industry.

When governments worldwide began falling over themselves to lock their societies down and imprison people in their own homes, they did so without real thought as to the consequences. And some of those consequences are now becoming apparent. The air transport industry was possibly hit harder than any other given its scale and cost base.

Airlines exist because people fly on the aircraft they operate; airports exist for those aircraft to land and take off from and to enable people to get on and off those same aircraft. It sounds obvious but what happens if you forcibly take away the people who use airliners, airlines and airports? Not reduce the numbers, even by a large amount - but remove them entirely?

What happens is that you have empty aircraft, empty airports and a massive number of people being paid to do nothing. It is thus quite understandable that many, many people were laid off and lost their jobs. No business can lose its entire business and carry on paying wages and salaries.

Five of Brussels Airlines colourful Airbus A320 aircraft sit idle in Belgium

Brussels Airlines

Yet another aspect to air transport not often understood by an astoundingly large number of others, is that most of those who work within it, no matter what their status or at what level, are usually intelligent, very hard-working, reliable, trustworthy and have skills and know-how easily transferable to other industries - yet certainly lower down the chain, airline and airport salaries are not at the top of the scale.

So as potential employers began to hunt for new recruits, those who had been laid off from airlines and airports have been in demand. And with better pay, fewer unsocial hours, significant numbers who once worked in air transport are now working elsewhere.

The problem is not confined to the United Kingdom but is, as a result of government response to COVID-19, a global one. And it isn't going to get better quickly.

In May, just a month ago, Travel Weekly's Ian Taylor wrote:

'Airport delays will continue through this summer and beyond owing to staff shortages exposed by the surge in air traffic', leaders of the European airports and ground-handlers’ associations have warned.

A survey by European airports association ACI Europe found two-thirds of airports expect flight delays to increase and more than one third forecast operations will be affected by shortages of airport and ground-handling staff beyond the summer season. One in six expect increased flight cancellations because of the staffing “crunch”.

The airports and ground handlers blame deregulation in the sector for low wages and unsocial hours making it difficult to recruit, as well as the limited state aid in Europe during the pandemic. In a joint statement, ACI Europe director general Olivier Jankovec and Airport Services Association (ASA) managing director Fabio Gamba acknowledged “an increase in flight delays and cancellations and a degraded passenger experience at many airports” because of longer waiting times at check-in, security and baggage delivery. They blame “depleted resources” and “the impossibility of scaling up staffing to the levels required to accommodate the surge in traffic”.

Jankovec and Gamba note the recovery in passenger numbers “has accelerated sharply and suddenly” and say: “At many airports, traffic peaks are at or higher than pre-pandemic levels.”

ACI Europe and the ASA insist the delays are caused by airports and ground handlers “coming out of the Covid-19 crisis with depleted resources as they have been forced to lay off staff due to the collapse in air traffic” and by the “extremely tight labour market across Europe”. They note: “Airports and ground handlers received far less financial aid than airlines” and such aid as there was “came late”. The pair argue this was “a significant contributing factor to weakened operational capabilities”.

Queues at Manchester


The associations also argue: “Security and ground-handling jobs have for many years stood at the lower end of pay scales and involve working shifts seven-days a week.” They suggest this is “a clear handicap in attracting people in the current inflationary environment”.

The ACI Europe and ASA leaders blame “years of liberalisation triggered by the EU Ground Handling Directive” for “a downward spiral that has become socially and operationally unsustainable” and argue: “Low wages and compromised service quality are now coming to the fore.” They say the crisis has been compounded by training and security clearance requirements which mean the gap between staff recruitment and deployment can be up to 16 weeks. Jankovec and Gamba warn: “Most airports, in particular larger ones, expect the passenger experience will be unavoidably affected this summer.”

They point out there is no quick fix, but suggest disruption could be reduced faster security clearance for staff, airlines adapting their schedules to reduce traffic peaks and returning unused airport slots, and “closer dialogue and cooperation between all partners”.

The two associations also call for EU rules on ground handling to be reconsidered “with a renewed focus on resilience” and “no further liberalisation of ground handling without a robust legal package aimed at guaranteeing a minimum quality of service and promotion and recognition of ground-handling workers’ skills.”

The ACI Europe survey of airports found 66% expect flight delays to increase, 16% expect flight cancellations to increase, 15% expect flight schedules to change and 35% expect airport and ground handling staff shortages to affect operations beyond the summer.

The associations note European airlines received €37.5 billion in financial aid from governments during the pandemic, when Europe’s airports received €4.9 billion and ground handlers €650 million.

By comparison, US airports received €38 billion in aid.'

© Ian Taylor / Travel Weekly

There are similar consequences to be found in other industries so it is not confined to commercial aviation. But these are the results of over-mighty politicians acting without thought and care. As always however, they will not suffer. Ordinary people will.

© KJM Today 2022.

Top Image via Travel Daily Media

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