The chaos that has engulfed many of the major airports in North America and Europe since the start of the summer hasn’t abated much, and news outlets and social media users continue to report hordes of eager travelers and mountains of suitcases outside. place.
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Canceled flights. Long lines. Staff strikes. Missing baggage.
Sound familiar? The chaos that has engulfed many of the major airports in North America and Europe since the summer hasn’t abated much, and news outlets and social media users continue to report hordes of eager travelers and piles of misplaced suitcases.
Just this week, German airline Lufthansa canceled nearly all of its flights to Frankfurt and Munich, blocking around 130,000 travelers due to a one-day strike by its ground crew who was on strike for better pay.
London Heathrow Airport and Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, two of the largest travel hubs in Europe, have reduced their passenger capacity and asked airlines to cut flights in and out of their airports, which angered both travelers and airline operators.
Carriers in the United States have also canceled and delayed tens of thousands of flights due to understaffing and weather problems.
Airlines are loudly blaming airports and governments. On Monday, the chief financial officer of European low-cost carrier Ryanair, Neil Sorahan, complained that the airports “had a job to do”.
Suitcases not collected at Heathrow Airport. The UK’s largest airport has told airlines to stop selling summer tickets.
Paolo Ellis | Afp | Getty Images
But many of those working in the sector say that airlines are also partly to blame for the staff shortage and the situation is becoming so serious that it threatens safety.
CNBC spoke to several pilots who fly for major airlines, who described fatigue from long hours and what they said was opportunism and a desire to cut costs as part of a toxic culture of “race to the bottom.” “that pervades the industry and worsens the mess that travelers face today.
All airline personnel spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
“From a passenger perspective, it’s a real nightmare,” a pilot with European low-cost airline easyJet told CNBC.
“In the early summer, it was absolute carnage because the airlines didn’t know what they were doing. They didn’t have a proper plan in place. All they knew they wanted to do was try to fly as humanly as possible, almost as if the pandemic had never happened, “said the pilot.
“But they forgot that they would cut all their resources.”
The resulting imbalance has “made our lives an absolute disaster, both for the cabin crew and for the pilots,” added the pilot, explaining how the shortage of ground staff from the layoffs of the Covid pandemic – those dealing with baggage, check-in, security and more – has created a domino effect that is throwing a wrench into flight times.
In a statement, easyJet said that employee health and well-being is “our top priority”, noting that “we take our responsibilities as an employer very seriously and employ our staff under local contracts on competitive terms and on line. with local legislation. “
The sector is now hampered by a combination of factors: not having enough resources for retraining, former staff not wanting to return, and low pay that has largely been suppressed by pandemic-era cuts, despite significantly improved revenues. for airlines.
“We were told to the pilots that we have wage cuts until at least 2030, except that all managers are back at full pay plus inflation wage increases,” a British Airways pilot said.
“Various governments with their restrictions and no support for the aviation sector” as well as airport companies are largely responsible for the current chaos, the pilot said, adding. that “some airlines have taken advantage of the situation to cut salaries, enter into new contracts and lay off people, and now that things are back to normal they can’t do it.”
While many airports and airlines are now recruiting and offering better pay, the required training programs and security clearances are also severely curtailed and overwhelmed, limping the industry further.
“They are shocked, which is unbelievable”
British Airways ground staff were due to go on strike in August due to the fact that their full pay had not yet been reinstated, which was particularly stinging at a time when the chief executive officer of BA’s parent company, IAG, received an announcement. gross living allowance of £ 250,000 ($ 303,000). for the year.
But this week, the airline and workers’ union agreed on a pay raise to cancel the planned strike, though some staff members say it’s not yet a full return to pre-pandemic pay.
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In a statement, British Airways said: “The past two years have been devastating for the entire aviation industry. We have taken steps to restructure our business to survive and save jobs.”
The company also said that “the vast majority of layoffs during this time period were voluntary.”
“We are fully focused on building resilience in our operations to give customers the certainty they deserve,” the airline said.
IAG CEO Luis Gallego, whose company owns BA, lost his £ 900,000 bonus in 2021 and made voluntary pay cuts in 2020 and 2021 and did not receive his 2020 bonus.
A pilot flying to Dubai’s flagship Emirates Airline said a short-term mindset that took employees for granted had been setting the stage for today’s situation for years.
The airlines “have been happy to try to reduce the wages of many people in the industry for years, assuming that no one has anywhere else to go,” the pilot said. “And now that people are exercising their right to go somewhere else, they’re shocked, which is amazing. I’m shocked that they’re shocked.”
A security risk?
All of this stress on airline staff adds to the often overlooked issue of pilot fatigue, all pilots interviewed by CNBC said.
The legal maximum limit for a pilot’s flight time is 900 hours per year. But for many airlines, “this was not seen as the absolute maximum, it was seen as the goal of trying to make everyone’s workload as efficient as possible,” the easyJet pilot said.
“This is our big concern is that we have a fairly toxic culture, an excessive amount of work,” echoed the Emirates pilot. “All of this contributes to potentially reducing the safety margin. And this is a big concern.”
All of this has been combined with low pay and less attractive contracts, say the pilots, many of whom were rewritten when the pandemic overturned air travel.
“A bit of a toxic soup of all of these, airports and airlines share the same level of blame. It’s been a race to the bottom for years,” the Emirates pilot said. “They will only ever try to pay as little as possible to get away with it.”
An Emirates Airline spokesperson said: “We would never want to compromise on safety at Emirates and there are strict regulatory requirements for rest and flight hours we adhere to for our operational crew. Our safety record, in the air and on land, it is one of the best in the industry “.
They added: “We continue to recruit and retain our flight crew with competitive packages, career progression and other generous benefits.”
“Crony capitalists. Race to the bottom. No respect for the skilled workforce now,” said the BA pilot, referring to corporate leadership in the industry. “They just want the cheapest manpower to produce their own big bonuses and make shareholders happy.”
The International Air Transport Association said in response to these criticisms that “the airline industry is increasing resources as quickly as possible to safely and efficiently meet the needs of travelers.” He acknowledged that “there is no doubt that these are difficult times for workers in the sector, particularly when they are in short supply.”
The business group issued recommendations “to attract and retain ground handling talent” and said in a statement that “securing additional resources where shortages exist is a top priority for industry management teams around the world” .
“And in the meantime,” he added, “the patience of the travelers.”