Welcome to London Air Travel’s Monday Briefing for the week beginning 6 June 2022.
The Blame Game
Who is to blame for the crisis affecting UK airlines & airports?
The afternoon before the start of the four day Platinum Jubilee weekend, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps – a master of politics – summoned various airlines, airports and ground handling agents to an urgent meeting.
How this helped anyone due to travel in the coming days is anyone’s guess. Quick to get out its side of the story the Department for Transport issued a press release admonishing airlines for their failures. They are threatened with enhanced consumer protection measures, such as automatic refunds for cancelled flights, akin to the “Delay Repay” scheme on the railways.
Over the weekend as short notice flight cancellations continued, a war of words has broken between all sides. And who is at fault?
Well, it’s everybody.
It’s the airlines.
The chief criticism from government is that airlines should have been better prepared for the surge in demand and should have not sold flights which they could not operate.
It’s the government.
Government ministers are accused of having little understanding of the airline industry, which was one of the last to have COVID-19 restrictions lifted.
The end of pandemic slot waivers effectively required airlines to run near full schedules. Airlines also point to ongoing delays in security vetting before new recruits can work airside.
It’s the airlines.
Airlines are accused of using the pandemic to cut staff costs, particularly though redundancy for long serving staff on legacy contracts, as a member of cabin crew for an unidentified airline writes for The Guardian.
Apropos of nothing, BA CEO Sean Doyle has previously pointed to a 30% reduction in staffing costs due to restructuring exercises at the airline.
Ground handling roles, which most airlines outsource to third parties with the poorest terms & conditions, are proving hardest to recruit for.
One tells The Times:
“Staff are getting to the point where they are just not bothered,” he said, adding they they were either refusing overtime or leaving their jobs due to the poor conditions.
He explained that understaffing had seen teams reduced from five to three, and that they were servicing three planes at once. “This has been a long time coming,” he said. “This isn’t even the pandemic. They have slashed and slashed and slashed and when the pandemic kicked in they culled the sector.
“It’s that unattractive now that nobody wants to work there. People think that they will take a job and just get sacked after six months.”
Another also tells The Times:
“My biggest challenge is retaining the staff I have,” he said. “They’re overworked, underpaid, stressed out and demoralised. When the new guys arrive, you see the look on their faces like ‘What the hell have I signed up for?’ The only solution is to pay them a lot more than £12 per hour to make the job more worthwhile than, say, driving a delivery van. That means airlines will have to pay more, so airfares will have to increase — but that’s the cost of a functioning airport.”
Jet2, which carries out ground handling in house, is keen to point out it has not suffered the same disruption as Tui which outsources ground handling to Swissport.
IATA has urged ground handling companies to adopt a “stronger talent acquisition strategy” and develop a “more compelling retention proposition”. This, of course, has to be paid for by their clients.
It’s the government.
Michael O’Leary, whose airline is one of the least affected, believes the government could solve this at a stroke, telling The Times:
“If you really want to eliminate the security queues at airports for the next eight to 12 weeks and ensure that hard-pressed British families can get a well deserved holiday, call in the defence forces because they can solve the problem,” he says. “The British have the best trained military personnel in Europe. They can go in and help out, particularly at weekends, at airport security where the airports are short-staffed. They haven’t opened up all the x-ray machines and you could open up all the machines if you had additional army personnel.”
O’Leary remembers when troops were deployed after 9/11. “There were tanks parked outside Heathrow in those kind of emergencies. And we’re in a similar emergency now. You would get rid of all these queues and flight delays almost in an instant.”
This has been flatly rejected by the government.
Many airlines and airports point to the end of freedom of movement between the UK and the rest of the European Union giving them a smaller pool of labour to draw from.
Again, a proposed special visa scheme for aviation employees in Europe has been flatly rejected by the government.
It’s the passengers.
Passengers may be caught in the middle of all of this, but they do not escape criticism either.
And it’s not just those arriving too early for flights. Will this summer herald a sea change in consumer behaviour? Will airlines build in more resilience?
No, writes Dominic O’Connell in The Times:
We want low prices, which means airlines operating (mostly) at thin margins. We won’t pay for easyJet to have hundreds of cabin crew and pilots on standby and airlines certainly won’t pay for the same level of resilience at airports and ground-handling companies.
I remember interviewing Bob Crandall, the renowned chief executive of American Airlines in the 1990s, and asking him whether Southwest Airlines, the then-upstart, new no-frills airline in the United States, would ever be much of a challenge to big players like American. He gave me a pitying look. “Son, most people would cut their own grandmother’s throat for one dollar off an airline ticket,” he growled. Crandall, as always, was correct.
Will things get better soon? Some in the industry are confident it will. Others at the coalface are not so sure. The summer peak, the start of the school holidays, is yet to come.
Heathrow Terminal 4 Reopening
Although Heathrow has not confirmed a date for the reopening of Terminal 4, all the signs are it will reopen next Tuesday, 14 June.
Qatar Airways will move back from Terminal 5 from this date. Elizabeth line and London Underground services will also restart.
A number of other airlines are expected to move shortly afterwards.
Also of interest this week:
Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss is undergoing treatment for stage 3 colon cancer. Shai continues to work for the airline. (The Telegraph)
News from London Air Travel you may have missed:
Iberia is operating BA short haul flights from Heathrow Terminal 5. (London Air Travel)
BA’s franchise partner in South Africa Comair has suspended operations. (London Air Travel)
Late post publication updates:
[Reserved for updates throughout the day]
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