Airline and airport executives have spent the past two years trying to convince everyone it’s safe to fly during a pandemic, touting reduced touchpoints and hospital-grade filters. Little did they know how overwhelmed they would be once travel returned.
From Sydney, where passengers wait hours to check in, to chaotic scenes in India and Europe, where the UK has seen weeks of disruption and Deutsche Lufthansa AG is canceling hundreds of flights, the aviation industry is n doesn’t have enough staff to run operations smoothly, even though post-summer travel demand is still unclear.
As countries reopen borders and Covid-19 restrictions fall, travel has resumed with such voracity that it has led to unprecedented labor shortages, compounded by pandemic-induced layoffs. hundreds of thousands of workers, from pilots to cabin crew and ground-handling personnel. Many are in no mood to return, but even if they were, an increase at such a pace poses a risk to airlines and airports, with spiraling inflation and economic pressures challenging the actual sustainability of current demand.
“All airports and airlines are understaffed at the moment,” said Geoff Culbert, chief executive of Sydney Airport, where nearly half of the 33,000 staff lost their jobs during Covid-19. The airfield is furiously trying to rebuild, but “we’re not as attractive a place to work as we used to be,” he said. “There is always an element of worry around job security.”
Having lost their jobs due to the pandemic, many employees in the aviation sector have turned to other less volatile careers and winning them back is proving difficult. Singapore’s Changi Airport is looking for 6,600 workers, from security to catering staff. One company, Certis Group, is offering a signing bonus of $18,000, or about 10 times the base monthly salary, for an auxiliary police officer role that would help control traffic and crowds.
The severe staff shortage, which is sure to be a topic of discussion at the International Air Transport Association’s 78th Annual General Meeting which begins in Doha on Sunday, has led to delays, cancellations and extreme frustration for airlines and travelers from all regions. The situation has become so serious that Ryanair Holdings Plc CEO Michael O’Leary has called for help from British military personnel and Australia’s Qantas Airways Ltd.
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“The staff shortage means that we are struggling to operate our planned schedule with the quality and punctuality that we promise,” Jens Ritter, CEO of Germany’s main airline Lufthansa, said in a LinkedIn post last week. , apologizing for the canceled flights in Munich and Frankfurt. . “Many people left the aviation sector during the pandemic and found work elsewhere. Today, our system partners such as airports and caterers are experiencing severe staff shortages and struggling to hire new staff.
Security clearances required for airport work are also slowing hiring. British Airways has some 3,000 potential recruits stuck in background checks at EasyJet Plc, there are 140 trained and ready crew who do not yet have the necessary airside passes.
All of this means it could take up to 12 months for the shortages to subside, according to Izham Ismail, CEO of Malaysian Airlines. “We see it mainly, very clearly in Europe. We see it in North America. We see it in Malaysia,” Izham said at a forum in Singapore earlier this week. “I believe that stakeholders, policy makers must work together to solve all problems.”
The management of airlines and airports varies from region to region. In Asia, airports have generally been more proactive when it comes to avoiding collapses, sometimes refusing airlines permission to add new flights or asking them to reschedule, said firm founder Brendan Sobie. consultancy Sobie Aviation based in Singapore. Other parts of the world are just hoping for a break as demand holds up, or even begins to decline.
“No market is immune to labor issues, so any window to address it can be seen as beneficial,” Sobie said.
The need to catch up was evident during a visit to Sydney Airport last Friday, at the start of a long weekend. Queues to clear security for Virgin Australia and Jetstar flights have flowed through the gate. Beyond security checks at a cafe in Toby’s Estate, a barista said he made at least 300 coffees at lunchtime, 50% more than usual. People waited 20 minutes at McDonald’s.
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In India, meanwhile, makeup artist Zainab Ashraf, who splits her time between Mumbai and the eastern Indian city of Calcutta, had to wait 45 minutes just to collect her bags. The airport never seems empty no matter what time of travel. “I never see Kolkata airport less crowded, even during off-peak hours. The crowds are constant.
Disruption has also been particularly severe in the UK and other European hubs like Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Paris. The Spanish cabin crew union at Ryanair Holdings Plc has announced a six-day strike from the end of the month after pay rise negotiations failed. The workers are expected to leave in six days, union officials told a press conference in Madrid on Monday.
This week, a disabled person died at Gatwick airport in the UK while using an escalator, after waiting for airline staff to obtain a wheelchair, according to media reports, which blamed the incident to the lack of personnel. Gatwick Airport denied the allegation in a statement, according to Sky News.
Behind the pressure to hire more staff, however, is a lingering concern that demand may not last. Then airlines could face an overcapacity problem – both in terms of fleet and manpower – if they bring back all their idle jets and hire aggressively. Airfares are already far above the comfort level of most travellers, inflation everywhere is driving up the cost of living, and people may prefer to stay home or vacation in the country once once the initial euphoria has passed.
“After the peak Northern Hemisphere travel months of June through August, the combination of the accelerated return to school and work and the normal seasonal drop in demand will force air carriers to ease fares for leisure and business, or risk further destroying demand,” Robert Mann said. , the New York director of the aviation consulting firm RW Mann & Co.
“Airline margins will deteriorate,” he said, meaning tough decisions will have to be made on “how much capacity can realistically be carried, particularly in the middle of the week when travel historically predominate”.