When Joe looked over the floor of the departure lounge at Frankfurt Airport last month for the most comfortable place to spend a night, she felt the impact of the chaos that engulfed the airline industry on a personal level.
An easyJet four-hour routine flight from London to Greece turned into a 24-hour test that began when British Airways canceled its flight almost without warning. With tickets for other direct flights running out, she had to move quickly through London to another airport to get an expensive, indirect flight route through Germany, which included an overnight stop in Frankfurt.
No, which did not want to reveal its full name, is one of hundreds of thousands of people who have found themselves in the midst of riots that have hit airlines and airports this year as passengers began flying back in groups after COVID- Pandemic 19. A married couple got married on a plane to Las Vegas after losing their wedding. Others complained about holiday breaks, loss of belongings and lack of money.
Problems caused by staff shortages at airlines, airports and ground handling companies made headlines in the UK following a wave of unrest involving the cancellation of 500 flights last weekend. But Europe and the United States have also felt the effects, leaving a slowdown in a system struggling to deal with other operational problems, ranging from weather to delays caused by air traffic control.
In the United States, thousands of flights were canceled during the Memorial Day celebration. In Europe, Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris canceled a quarter of its flights on Thursday following a workers’ strike. On Saturday, Dutch airline KLM suspended passenger flights to Amsterdam Schiphol Airport due to bad weather and runway maintenance, adding to overcrowding caused by staff shortages.
In total, 4 percent of global flights were canceled last Saturday, including 11 percent of flights to the Netherlands, 4 percent to Germany and 3 percent to the US and UK, according to industry data provider OAG.
The causes of the problem are intertwined. The companies were accused of laying off many employees when the pandemic first hit, and then found themselves completely unprepared for the return of passengers, despite many predicting there would be massive closed travel requests.
“Demand has returned (…) much faster than the industry can afford,” said John Holland Kaye, chief executive of Heathrow Airport, in the Financial Times global boardroom this week.
The industry’s struggle to hire substitutes has become even more difficult in tight and emerging labor markets. But the crisis has also revealed how a smoothly interconnected network of companies needs to come together to launch an airplane. When part of the aviation ecosystem fluctuates, this leads to severe disruptions across the industry.
Holland Kaye said the industry has gone through an “existential crisis” over the past two years. “Without revenue and with very high fixed costs (…), rebuilding this capacity is very difficult.”
Two years ago, amid the closures of COVID-19, airlines were struggling to survive, focusing on cost-cutting as passengers disappeared and losses were piling up. Realizing the threat to her business, her bosses reduced the number of staff dramatically. In April 2020, Lufthansa estimated it was spending 1 million euros per hour.
British Airways has cut nearly 10,000 of its 42,000 workforce, a move that a British parliamentary committee called a “reckless devastation”. Many competitors have also taken similar steps.
The U.S. government estimated that 100,000 jobs in the airline industry were lost by September 2021, even though it provided more than $ 50 billion in airline subsidies. Swissport’s ground-based utility company has laid off 20,000 of its 65,000 employees worldwide. In total, the number of people employed in the aviation industry had dropped by 2.3 million by September 2021, according to research by Oxford Economics, a consultancy.
“With few exceptions, the union’s calls to implement employee retention programs during the height of the crisis have no echo,” said Stephen Cotton, ITF secretary general. “The result is what we see today (…) losing more than two million skilled workers in aviation companies, airports, aviation services and global supply chains at a time when the industry needs them most.”
The unions said the impact of job losses was exacerbated by the fact that many senior managers were involved in layoffs. The impact of this skills and knowledge gap is only becoming apparent now as companies try to rebuild their absorption capacity.
The problem is compounded by the erratic pandemic rhythms. British Airways began re-staffing late last year, with easing of border rules and a serious resumption of transatlantic flights. But just a few weeks later, the emergence of the Omicron mutant led to the establishment of new border rules.
For Willie Walsh, the former head of British Airways, who now chairs the International Air Transport Association, the industry is still reeling from the effects of various government travel rules.
“With governments making changes and policy changes, there has been uncertainty until the last minute, which has left little time to restart an industry that has been largely dormant for two years,” he said. “It is not surprising that we are seeing operational delays in some countries.” .
interconnected supply chains
Not only is the industry struggling to find employees in today’s tight job markets, but its unique safety rules put it in a particularly difficult position. Many new employees must pass background checks before being allowed to work. These processes can take several weeks, during which time candidates can find another job.
Some said the sector has become less attractive to jobseekers, after two years of layoffs and negative news headlines. “Many of those who saw the industry as attractive changed their minds,” said Joseph Vardy, chief executive of Wizz Air, a pan-European budget airline. “People started looking for other industries and sectors to advance their careers.”
Vardy this week faced sharp criticism from the pilots’ unions after he told staff in a leaked internal review: “We can not run this business when every fifth person on a base reports ill because he is exhausted. “We are all tired, but sometimes it takes more effort.”
While some companies have reported problems with hiring well-paid pilots, other jobs – especially field work at airports – are the most difficult. A European industry executive said: “Be honest. Would you rather work in a supermarket at convenient times and have regular tours, or get up at 2am and stay cool in the airport?”
Cotton said companies need to offer better job security, job standards and career advancement opportunities to make the industry more attractive to potential employees.
However, the rate of downtime for individual airlines does not fully match the rate of job cuts. Although easyJet has been hit particularly hard this year, it has roughly the same number of employees as in 2019. Wizz Air expects to have 6,700 employees by the end of the summer, up from 4,000 before the pandemic. Still forced to cancel flights.
The problems faced by these airlines are mainly related to their supply chains, which are vulnerable to outages outside of their direct control. While a passenger can only be in contact with two brands, the airline and the airport, their travel is operated by a range of companies, ranging from control subcontractors and baggage handlers, to airport security companies and food providers. of third parties. Third.
Over the years, airlines have transferred as many parts of the business as possible. When a link in the chain fails, and every part of the industry suffers from staffing problems this year, the small margins that airlines are working with tend to collapse.
Many airlines blamed the disruption on ground staff, who provide services ranging from jet fuel to control staff, for a lack of sufficient staff. But frustrated executives of these companies say the airlines themselves have squeezed profit margins into their contracts for years.
In an effort to restore order, some in the industry have questioned a system that offers discounted tariffs emphasizing efficiency over almost everything else. According to a member of the European board of airlines, it is clear that the system can no longer function within the limits of 2019, but the introduction of a new period of slowdown to prevent any interruptions in the future will mean that passengers will have to prepare for higher prices.
However, companies continue to be criticized for overestimating the number of flights they will be able to perform this summer. Five weeks ago, Lufthansa chief Carsten Spohr said his group was “mentally overcoming the crisis” as it was expected to transport more people this summer “than ever before”. But the company said Thursday it would cancel 900 flights in July, blaming “cramps and staff shortages” across the industry. In the UK, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps accused the airlines of “selling flights and vacations seriously underestimated” this month.
Europe’s air traffic control has warned of problems that will last until July, while airlines in the region expect the outage to continue for most of the summer. Holland-Kaye exaggerated that it could take up to 18 months to restore operational capacity.
The only lever left for airline chiefs is the most difficult of all: trying to reduce flights. Lufthansa’s decision to reduce its timetable reflects an earlier decision by British Airways, which cut its summer timetable by 10 per cent in a bid to ensure its operations are more reliable. It worked, for now, and the company has been much more resilient since then.
What is troubling for an industry still in recovery is that some travelers have already seen enough. Matthias Trost, a professor at the University of Newcastle, travels regularly to scientific conferences again this year, but he estimates that about half of his travels have been interrupted.
He said, “We all expected to get back to normal (…) but if you are traveling for 36 hours, it’s ridiculous. I’ll not book any new flights.”