Chaos at Australian airports as staff shortages prolong waiting times. Video / 9 News
A pilots’ union warns there could be longer-term problems for plane crew in New Zealand as travelers battle delays and flight disruptions during the school holidays.
The New Zealand Air Line Pilots’ Association (NZALPA) says the current disruption is
not the result of a shortage of pilots, but the global shortage and a tight pool of trainees could hurt travellers.
Air New Zealand said today it continues to face disruption to its network due to extreme weather, employee illness and engineering issues.
“These conditions, coupled with the busiest travel period we have experienced since pre-Covid, are truly the perfect storm and our teams are working around the clock to help alleviate these pressures,” said Leanne Geraghty, Director of sales and customers.
Geraghty said delays and cancellations could continue over the next few days.
Pilots association president Andrew Ridling told the Herald that there was no shortage of pilots in New Zealand yet.
Air NZ was recruiting 1,100 staff to fill the gaps, the most acute shortages among staff at the airport and in its call centre.
The airline said last week it was looking for around 70 pilots for its turboprop fleet to fill gaps left by those promoted to fly jets.
Ridling said there was a large battery of drivers who were let go or quit in 2020 who were available to return.
The biggest employer here, Air NZ, has laid off around 300 of its group of 1,200 pilots.
“From a pilot’s perspective, it’s like having a battery of pilots that we can start calling back,” Ridling said.
The network had been busier than anyone had ever imagined, he said.
He said Air NZ was doing a good job in difficult circumstances.
“But they’re limited by the fact that you just can’t go get a plane and fill it with cabin crew and engineers to go with it. Pilots could quickly be the constraint, but we’re not this time around. .”
He backed the airline’s decision to cancel flights if there were staff shortages due to Covid or another illness.
One of the causes of the delays was very full flights. Boarding and disembarking full planes took longer, which could be frustrating for passengers.
Ridling is a Dreamliner captain who has flown throughout the pandemic and said in other parts of the world the disruption was even worse, with around 10% of flights canceled in Europe and the US network struggling.
Sydney and Melbourne airports were congested and flights there were halted.
Ridling flew from Brisbane to Auckland yesterday and a shortage of ground staff across Tasmania led to a 30 minute delay.
“We are lucky in New Zealand because I don’t think [it’s] back to full capacity again. It’s because of the slow opening of the borders,” he said.
But as capacity returned with the reintroduction of Boeing 777-300s, more pilots would be needed.
They needed three months of refresher training in simulators, in the classroom and in real flight and he said a critical point was the need to train the trainers.
Air New Zealand was sending pilots to Singapore for simulator training, Ridling said.
“The problem which is really the global problem is trying to train pilots. It takes three months to have someone at the front door and then trained and usable. Everyone is trying to inject capacity, but with the short notice the government has given, obviously puts pressure on the industry,” he said.
“I expect most people will want to come back to the industry they loved back then.”
He said there should be enough pilots by early next year even if Air New Zealand’s capacity was restored to near pre-pandemic levels.
But then longer-term problems might appear. A growing risk was that pilots would be poached by foreign airlines, which now suffer from severe shortages.
“We came into Covid with a global shortage of drivers and I think that’s going to show up again and again.”
The association has already informed the government of its concerns and will do so again this week.
American airlines were looking for pilots in this region.
“Anyone with Australian citizenship and a pilot’s license can get the green card to go to America. This has never happened before.”
The closure of flight schools to foreign students during the pandemic has also exacerbated the problem.
According to current projections, the Asia-Pacific region envisaged a shortfall of 29,000 pilots by 2030.
Ridling said that despite New Zealand airports being full, he did not encounter too many grumpy passengers but asked for patience.
Airline staff were doing their best as the industry – which was on its knees two years ago – was rebuilding.
Air New Zealand’s Geraghty said that to help ease the pressure and assist customers also coping with illness, the airline has reinstated its flexibility policy.
This allowed customers with flights booked between now and July 31 to keep the value of their fare in credit for 12 months from the time they claimed their credit – or change their flight and take advantage of the waiver of their change fees.
About 2,500 people had taken the opportunity to opt for credit in the past 24 hours.
“We encourage anyone who no longer wishes to travel to opt for a credit in order to free up places for others.”
She said the airline has many volunteers who come on days off and some of its office workers help out on the front line.