The Aviation Secretary was warned earlier this year that the widespread flight chaos observed last week was “inevitable” and government intervention was urgently needed to prevent such a disruption, union sources say.
During a phone call with airline unions in late January, Robert Courts was told the industry would not be able to cope with the high demand unless it got help to fill chronic staff shortages.
Those predictions were played out in sometimes absurd scenes last week, when hundreds of flights were canceled during one of the busiest weeks of the year, along with days of delays and massive queues snaking out of terminal buildings.
The chaos continued yesterday as at least 20 easyJet flights were cancelled. The low-cost airline confirmed that “a small proportion” of flights were canceled after “problems” at London’s Gatwick Airport and Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport.
A Gatwick Airport spokesman said: “Bad weather and air traffic control issues across Europe are limiting the number of flights that can use European airspace and causing significant delays and some cancellations at Gatwick.”
Sources familiar with the call to courts say the government has not offered a solution, despite concerns about serious staff shortages after airlines, airports and ground handlers laid off tens of thousands of workers in 2020 because of the Covid pandemic.
“The minister was warned straight out that this was inevitable. They have to take some responsibility,” a union source said.
In turn, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps last week blamed some of the worst-hit airlines directly, warning that the industry’s strain “is no excuse for poor planning and overbooking on flights they can’t service”.
A government spokesman on Saturday added that the industry was responsible for ensuring it had enough staff and said it needed to “step up recruitment”.
With the end of the semester break and the anniversary weekend, there were signs yesterday that the worst of the disruptions were beginning to subside. At Stansted Airport in Essex – a hub for easyJet and Tui Airways, which together canceled dozens of flights last week, some at short notice – staff said the situation was returning to normal. However, passengers who landed there on Saturday morning still described shock at the sheer volume of people wanting to fly.
Sisters Margeret Mularkey and Karmel Corbett said they had never seen Dublin Airport look so chaotic before boarding their Ryanair flight to England. “It was absolutely insane. Thousands of people everywhere. They were lined up outside, far in the parking lot,” Mularkey said.
Corbett believed both airlines and the government appeared to have been caught off guard at how abruptly demand for flights returned after lockdowns ended.
“They have such an obvious shortage of staff and clearly didn’t expect it to go back to previous levels. You must have thought that Covid would put most people off traveling again,” she said.
Behind them was Brian O’Farrell, who said navigating Dublin Airport security took three times longer than usual. “It was extremely busy,” he said. “It was really crowded. I’m glad I decided to only take a carry-on bag, but it still took me an hour to get through security instead of the usual 20 minutes.” Nearby, at a booth decorated in yellow and blue, the After greeting the approximately 100 Ukrainian refugees who arrive in Stansted each day, Andy Mitson admitted he was relieved they had managed to avoid getting caught up in the chaos.
Mitson, who volunteers with CVSU, a community charity based in the Essex district of Uttlesford, said: “Disorders don’t seem to have been a big problem for Ukrainians, but to be fair they have bigger problems to address they have to think.”
Meanwhile, hostilities between the government and the airline industry are likely to heat up this week as airlines continue to press the government to relax post-Brexit immigration rules and grant special visas to EU airline workers to ease the disruption. However, the government is unlikely to change stance as airlines suffer from staff shortages with the summer holiday season approaching.
The airline industry says it’s struggling to rehire staff fast enough to cope, largely because potential employees are required to pass security clearances before starting work. British Airways, for example, lost about 10,000 employees during the pandemic and has since rehired more than 2,000, with thousands reportedly awaiting security clearance.
Unions argue that the scale of staff shortages is evidence that the scale of job losses highlights the lack of government support during the pandemic, which is then exacerbated by airline cuts that are too drastic.
A government spokesman added: “Using our post-Brexit freedoms, we have changed the law to give the industry more flexibility in training new employees, which will help them fill vacancies more quickly.”
The travel woes could extend to the railways this week, as passengers have been warned they are also likely to face disruption following a train crew strike. Members of the rail, shipping and transport union at TransPennine Express walked on Saturday and were due to strike again on Sunday in a protracted dispute over pay. TransPennine Express urged people not to travel and announced limited service for those making essential journeys.
Travel chaos is also in store for Londoners, tourists and workers as 4,000 Tube workers are set to go on strike after the end of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations. Severe disruption warnings are forecast for Monday as many metro stations, particularly in the centre, are set to close completely.