Airlines have asked the UK to relax post-Brexit immigration rules and give EU aviation workers special visas to help ease the disruption that is plaguing the travel industry as demand for flights soars.
Chief executives of airlines told transport secretary Grant Shapps at a meeting on Wednesday that they could ease some of their staffing shortages by moving crew into the UK from other European bases, according to people with knowledge of the call.
But Shapps warned it was unlikely the government would relax immigration rules to help the industry, which has been convulsed by delays and cancellations during one of the busiest weeks of the year.
The pressure on the industry will intensify this bank holiday with nearly 2mn people hoping to fly away following a week which has seen passengers suffer widespread disruption and companies accused of selling more fights than they could operate.
More than 10,500 flights with some 1.9mn seats are scheduled to depart from UK airports between Thursday and Sunday, according to data from analytics company Cirium, as the Jubilee long weekend coincides with schools’ half-terms.
The rush follows a disastrous week for the industry as travellers have complained of missed flights, day-long delays and queues snaking out of terminal buildings.
EasyJet and Tui were forced to cancel hundreds of flights — some at short notice — as they struggled to find enough crew and aircraft to fulfil their schedules, while airports including Manchester and Bristol apologised to customers for delays. Air traffic control problems across Europe added to the chaos.
The disruption at times bordered on farce: passengers watched as one Tui pilot went on the airstrip to help load bags on to their plane, while other would-be flyers said a Vueling flight took off with no passengers on it at all following a mix-up.
In all, there were 377 flight cancellations from UK airports between May 25 and May 31, Cirium said, of which 151 affected passengers trying to travel from London Gatwick airport, which was badly hit by easyJet disruption.
Airlines “seem to be trying to run schedules that can’t materialise”, said Chris Tarry, an aviation consultant. The industry needed “a rendezvous with reality”, he added.
At the heart of the crisis lies a staffing shortage which reveals a failure or inability to plan for a period that was always expected to be busy, and comes just weeks after the industry came in for criticism over queues and delays over Easter.
As the chaos escalated during the week, a blame game began as Shapps said the strains on the sector “do not excuse poor planning and overbooking flights that they cannot service.”
“The companies who have seen the most disruption need to learn from those who ran services smoothly,” he said.
Airlines, airports and ground handlers sacked tens of thousands of staff in 2020 after the pandemic ripped into their businesses, and are now unable to rehire quickly enough to cope, particularly as many employees need to pass security background checks before they can start work.
Airline bosses nonetheless seized on the return of demand for flying and planned expansive timetables that proved impossible to fulfil, with easyJet promising to fly near their 2019 schedules and BA owner IAG 80 per cent, despite having fewer staff.
For unions, the chaos is proof that airline bosses cut too hard in search of cost savings, leaving businesses with no flexibility to cope with the boost in demand.
Sharon Graham, head of Unite the Union, blamed the airlines because they “sacked and slashed wages for thousands of workers without a second thought during the pandemic.”
Martin Chalk, head of the pilots’ union Balpa, said the industry was “reaping what it sowed” and that airlines which worked more closely with their staff during the crisis were now better placed to ride out the disruption.
But airline and airport executives were frustrated and angry at the government blaming them for the disruption.
Industry body AirlinesUK said the vast majority of flights were operating as scheduled and the sector had “only had weeks to recover” after travel restrictions were lifted in March.
Companies received less financial support than in many other countries, while strict rules which force airlines to use their allocated take-off and landing slots leave them with limited flexibility to cancel flights in advance.
Balpa’s Chalk said the government had also ignored specific requests to extend furlough for aviation staff with security clearances. “It is really rich for them to now be pointing fingers”, he said.
Jet2 boss Steve Heapy told Travel Weekly that ministers had “scant” understanding of the industry.
The aviation industry is a fragile and complex web of companies that operates on a knife-edge at the best of times and is prone to cascading disruption whenever any problems occur.
The issues over Easter were in part because airports were short-staffed, particularly at security, and executives said these jobs had largely been filled. But the problems have now shifted, including to check-in and ground operations.
Ministers have introduced temporary changes to help get staff on to the frontline more quickly, including allowing training while security checks take place and for tax employment history letters to be used for reference checks.
But with no quick fix in sight and many companies still chronically short-staffed, airlines expect the disruption to continue well into the peak summer season, according to an airline’s briefing document seen by the Financial Times.
Several airlines have responded by cutting schedules to better reflect their capacity to operate flights, and to try to avoid last-minute cancellations.
EasyJet this week said it would cut 24 flights per day, while Tui cancelled 43 flights per week out of Manchester.
There are signs this tactic might work. BA has managed to inject resilience into its operation after it cut 10 per cent of its schedule last month following repeated disruption.
“You can’t switch on an industry overnight,” said Paul Charles, a travel industry consultant. “It was always going to be impossible to expect it to restart straight away,” he said.
Birmingham passenger abandons Tui after whole-day airport ordeal
For Richard Guttfield, what should have been a three-and-a-half hour flight to Greece turned into whole-day ordeal on Sunday, as he became one of tens of thousands of passengers caught in the disruption gripping the travel industry.
Holiday airline Tui kept passengers hoping to fly between Birmingham and Keffalonia waiting at the airport gate for around eight hours with no communication at all, Guttfield said, before eventually sending them a text to say the flight would not run until the following morning.
“All of us were just left guessing at what was happening, there was no information from Tui, nothing at, all not a word,” the 55-year-old tech worker said. “People tried to contact Tui but got nothing at all”
Passengers were promised hotel rooms, but the airline never delivered, Guttfield said, but it did quickly offer £500 compensation under UK rules.
Customers on the Kefalonia flight, which eventually landed on Monday evening, were offered accommodation and compensation by ground handlers, Tui said.
Overall, he estimates he spent 11 hours in the airport on Sunday afternoon, before giving up and booking a flight with easyJet the following day.
“I just did not trust Tui to get me there,” he said.
Guttfield was not alone: other passengers across various airlines have complained of problems, including a 30-hour wait for a flight to Turkey from Manchester, a cancelled wedding in Cyprus and spending £6,000 on tickets for the Monaco Grand Prix which was missed.
As more people were caught in the disruption, consumer groups called for better protection for passengers.
“The government and regulators must take their share of responsibility for creating a situation where airlines feel empowered to treat passengers poorly,” said Rory Boland, Editor of Which? Travel.
“Ministers should drop plans to cut passenger compensation when UK domestic flights are delayed or cancelled, and give the Civil Aviation Authority the powers it needs to hold airlines to account.”
Tui said it was “incredibly sorry” for the recent disruption.
“We understand that last minute delays and cancellations are incredibly disappointing, and we would like to reassure our customers that we are doing everything we can to get them on holiday as planned.”