Travel chaos prevents British Airways from regaining its good old days

Sean Doyle, chief executive of British Airways, decided that this year was the time to improve the airline’s damaged reputation.
Instead, the British Airways veteran, who took the lead post in late 2020 at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, faces a new crisis following a wave of delays, flight cancellations and IT failures that left the company airline to fight to fly enough planes. Atmosphere.
British Airways is not alone. After thousands of staff were laid off as governments shut down airspace in 2020, the airline industry is now beginning to collapse under the overwhelming demand caused by easing travel restrictions in the UK in late January.
But current and former employees, as well as unions, say the combination of staff shortages, especially among experienced managers, unreliable information technology and an extremely complex operating structure, has left British Airways particularly exposed.
British Airways has canceled 1,244 flights this year, roughly one in 20 scheduled flights, according to flight data provider Sirium. The data show that airline flights from UK airports were more likely to be canceled than competitors’ flights.
Passengers complained of last-minute flight disruptions, long waits for hours to pack luggage and a lack of response to calls on airline telephone lines. One Saturday morning in February, British Airways had to cancel its entire short-haul flight schedule after the computers failed.
“Sean Doyle has stated that he faces a major hurdle in overcoming these issues. None of them can be resolved quickly. The only thing they can do is try to move forward,” said John Strickland, a consultant. aviation and former executive of British Airways. .
The numbers include long-planned cancellations of flights to Russia or countries where travel restrictions remain, and British Airways says the vast majority of flights are canceled in advance. Nearly 12 flights were canceled last week with a brief announcement.
Competitors, particularly EasyJet, also suffered a new wave of coronavirus infections that swept through their staff, but British Airways has already canceled flights until May, in a bid to make its flight schedules more reliable and a sign that the airline expects interruptions during the summer. season.
At the heart of the British Airways crisis is the lack of staff facing the wider aviation industry, from airport operators to ground support staff. The shortage has been exacerbated by a new wave of COVID-19 infections, a tight labor market and delays in approving safety permits for new employees.
British Airways executives describe the situation as “one that requires the commitment of all staff”, as staff have been relocated from headquarters to front-line functions, including assistance in reception areas, boarding procedures and responding to dissatisfied customers. on social media.
In an internal letter to staff last month, Doyle said he was “frustrated” by the problems the airline was carrying and acknowledged that “many of our customers are rightly fed up”.
British Airways said in a statement that “aviation has been one of the industries most affected by the pandemic, and airlines and airports are facing the same problems due to rebuilding their operations by managing Covid’s ongoing impact”.
The race to keep it running is making British Airways, and other parts of the industry, vulnerable to allegations that it has significantly reduced staff numbers during the pandemic, in a bid to permanently lower its cost base. British Airways has laid off around 10,000 employees and has since made plans to re-employ at least 3,000.
“Airlines that were the hardest to lay off employees are now the hardest hit,” said Martin Chalk, president of the Balpa Pilots Union.
Airline executives denied the allegations, noting that the start of the pandemic had pushed the industry into a historic crisis and that it was impossible at the time to know when airspace would open. British Airways was losing milionë 20 million a day during the worst riots.
Ross Paul, a regional official at Unite, a union involved in a monthly dispute with British Airways over the rate of layoffs, said the airline had lost a large number of experienced workers and was struggling to replace them.
He said things were crazy at British Airways “and they’s the ones who caused it”.
The unions claim the airline is trying to attract talent, but British Airways denies this and has received 30,000 job applications, according to a person familiar with the matter.
While British Airways faces a set of challenges similar to many other British travel companies, its “unreasonable” scale and complexity make it more vulnerable to successive outages than several competitors, according to a senior British Airways executive. .
British Airways has a mix of short and long haul flights to nearly 200 destinations on a fleet of 10 different types of Airbus and Boeing aircraft, a model that means staff can not be easily relocated to fill gaps.
The riots come at a difficult time for Doyle. The Irishman has made it his mission to restore the image of the airline that once called itself “the world’s favorite” after British Airways suffered a series of disruptions before the pandemic, including IT meltdown, data breaches and a pilot strike. .
International Airlines Group, the parent company of British Airways, is also facing pressure from Qatar Airways, its largest shareholder, to restore the British Airways brand shine. Akbar al-Baker, chief executive of Qatar Airways, told the Financial Times last year that the airline made mistakes when it gained a reputation for cutting costs.
He said, “A great airline like British Airways (…) which was, you know, the favorite airline in the world, should not have gotten to where it ended up.”
Alex Cruz, the former president of British Airways, won the support of International Airlines Group for a multi-billion dollar investment program to improve British Airways’ business class offerings before his departure, products that are still on sale and should help. International Airlines Group is also investing millions in upgrading its IT systems.
But given Doyle’s efforts to bring the brand back to high quality – he told the Financial Times this year that British Airways should be “excellent” in everything it does – the crisis has increased the risk.
Paul Charles, a communications consultant in the travel industry, said: “There is a lot of burden on the British Airways brand, which dates back decades. It does not have the luxury of a startup or development more than its competitors and has always been judged by the times. old, how things were. ”

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