Travel disruption and flight cancellations - The blame game

With staff shortages, an insatiable demand for flights and poor post-COVID planning, many flights are being cancelled as holiday-makers try to jet off on holiday, but who is really to blame?

What is happening?

Typical of the last few days, more than 150 flights were cancelled on Wednesday 25 May, with easyJet, TUI and British Airways all reporting cancellations. Whilst most passengers are being given prior notice of their cancellation, in some cases passengers are arriving at the airport, luggage in tow, only to find out after checking in that their flight has been cancelled. In the worst cases, passengers have even boarded planes only to have to disembark and travel back home.At the time of this article:

  • TUI is cancelling 6 flights a day from Manchester Airport, which is one quarter of their schedule, affecting around 34,000 passengers in total;
  • easyJet has cancelled at least 31 flights at Gatwick Airport and has said that they expect to cancel around 24 flights a day between 28 May and 6 June;
  • British Airways has also reportedly cancelled 124 short haul flights, but say that they were all cancelled with notice.

These figures may seem high and there is significant press coverage at the moment. However, we do need some perspective here. Airlines UK, the trade body for UK registered airlines, has reassured passengers that the vast majority of flights will go ahead as scheduled.Who is to blame?When things run smoothly, jetting off on holiday seems like an easy task, one that we've taken for granted. However, there are a myriad of aviation partners and complex factors that work together at an airport to enable a flight to depart on time. If any part of that process fails, it could lead to a delay or even cancellation resulting in the troubling images we are seeing in the news at present.Arguably, the most important factor is the mountain of staff that work at the airport and for the airlines. When COVID related travel restrictions were imposed, airports and airlines were forced to make redundancies. Passenger numbers plummeted to record lows, flights were grounded and airports were left empty. Pre-COVID, British airports and airlines employed around 140,000 staff members. COVID cost the industry tens of thousands of jobs, including around 30,000 for UK airlines alone. The sector is now struggling to employ enough staff to make up for this, against a backdrop of passenger numbers which, for some airports, are back at or above pre-COVID levels. Many of the airport partners and the airlines are fishing in the same pond for a finite number of employees.The SoS for Transport claims the Government made it clear that it was up to industry leaders to tackle travel disruptions and that, despite warnings, airlines 'seriously oversold flights' relative to their capacity. He has asked that all efforts must be made to avoid a repeat over the summer and is investigating what is happening 'on the ground' by meeting with representatives from airports and airlines.However, the Government is not without blame here. Airports and airlines had to cut back operations to survive and were given little to no direction on when travel restrictions would be lifted. They argue they had no way of preparing or re-hiring for the increased demand in the time they were given. There is no quick fix to the staff shortage as the onboarding process is more involved, with extensive security checks required before a new staff member can start. There is also a backlog of staff waiting to be processed due to the increase in applications.It is not all doom and gloomThe huge demand for flights has also brought about positive change. Dozens of new airlines have launched around the world over the past year, including Norse Atlantic Airways which has reportedly received 3,000 applicants for its first 50 pilot jobs!Arguably the aviation sector suffered the most as a result of the pandemic. From that low, airlines and airports are now battling with the constant struggle to keep a surge of passengers flowing and planes in the air. If they can pull together this summer, is there a light waiting for them at the end of the tunnel?

If you have any queries on this article or the topics discussed please contact our specialist Transport team.


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