The commercial aviation industry appears to be lurching from one crisis to another. First came the pandemic that grounded entire fleets, left deserted airports and tested airline businesses to the limits of bankruptcy. Then came the surge in demand once travel resumed. Passengers stranded in airports, stuck on planes going nowhere, luggage pilling up and bags vanishing at an alarming rate. The industry went into meltdown and passengers felt it hardest, but what sparked this summer of chaos and what is being done to address it at UK airports?
It started with the pandemic
When the pandemic took hold, air travel was suspended and airports closed. Ground crew were furloughed and some, sadly, were permanently laid-off. The industry was left in a state of disarray.
While travel was restricted, airlines were only limited by the number of passengers wishing to travel. Capacity was able to keep up with the low demand. Once travel restrictions were lifted and the the travel public regained their confidence, demand surged and problems began to appear.
Airlines and airport operators have been unable to keep up with the demand, growing their headcount at slower rates than needed. The delay in hiring new airport workers is largely because of two factors: these pandemic-hit businesses are trying to operate on a shoestring budget and workers who were let go during pandemic no longer want to work in the airline sector. The outcome is a shortfall in the number of airport workers needed to operate at the current passenger numbers.
Baggage and ground handling delays
We first experienced capacity issues back in February, when we flew into Heathrow’s Terminal 5 on a BA flight from Mexico City. We waited in the baggage hall for 3 long hours to receive our bags. We’d experienced baggage delays before, but nowhere near as long as this. Despite the wait, we counted ourselves as the lucky ones; other passengers were told their bags wouldn’t be delivered to them today and to go home. After arriving home, we learnt that bags hadn’t even been loaded onto some flights!
When we challenged BA on this, we were told it was Heathrow’s problem. Heathrow told us to speak to the airline.
On a couple of recent flights into Heathrow, we’ve been left waiting on the tarmac for up to 1 hour before being assigned a gate to disembark. Insufficient ground crew causes delays and aircraft are late leaving their gates. If more planes land than depart, there will eventually be no spare gates. Heathrow is simply running out of places for planes to park.
The problem wasn’t isolated to Heathrow, or even just the London airports. Similar chaos also appeared at Manchester and Bristol airports.
The combination of these two problems is leading to some horrendous passenger experiences. Some unlucky passengers aren’t leaving the airport for several hours after landing. No competitive international airport can continue to operate like this.
Airlines quickly realised this situation couldn’t continue, especially when faced with massive passenger compensation bills. They took matters into their own hands and began cancelling flights they knew would be significantly delayed or simply didn’t have the staff to operate. This sparked outrage with passengers, many of whom were already at the airport before learning that their flight had been cancelled. Passengers were being left stranded in cities around the world, with little-to-no assurances on when they’d be brought home. The sporadic cancellations continued for weeks.
The UK Government steps in
With daily media coverage highlighting the utter chaos across UK commercial aviation, pressure mounted on the UK aviation regulator (CAA) and the UK Government to act. The public were tired of the shoulder shrugging and finger-pointing they saw from airlines and airports.
Grant Schapps, the UK’s Transport Minister, held a meeting with airline bosses and airport operators and asked them to explore all options to avoid last minute flight cancellations. At the same time, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said it would suspend the “use it or lose it” rule, which forces airlines to use their take-off and landing slots or risk losing them. The new policy was accompanied with a deadline for airlines cancel flights from its summer schedule. It was hoped this would incentivise airlines to plan well ahead and advertise cancellations weeks in advance.
British Airways and Easyjet responded by slashing thousands of flights from their summer schedules just ahead of the deadline. Days later, we received notifications from BA that two of our summer itineraries were affected. Fortunately, we were able to rebook on other flights.
Heathrow limits passenger numbers
After first dragging its feet about the issue, Heathrow then announced that it would limit daily passenger numbers to 100,000 from 12th July until 11th September 2022. This was just a 5% reduction on the average daily volumes expected over the summer, but Heathrow said it was sufficient bring things back into order. The airport contacted airlines to ask them not to sell any more seats and to respect the daily cap.
However, it wasn’t just Heathrow finding itself having to implement a cap on passengers numbers. At the same time, Amsterdam Schipol Airport announced a similar type of volume restriction with only 64,000 daily passenger permitted.
Anger from Emirates
In an act of defiance, Dubai-based airline Emirates has said it will not cancel any bookings on its scheduled flights operating from Heathrow.
“They wish to force Emirates to deny seats to tens of thousands of travellers who have paid for, and booked months ahead, their long-awaited package holidays or trips to see their loved ones. This is entirely unreasonable and unacceptable, and we reject these demands”
Emirates is furious that Heathrow has opted to cut capacity rather than address the underlying issues that would enable the airport to operate at full capacity. The airline pulled no punches when it said that there would be an “airmadeggon” situation because of Heathrow’s incompetence and “non-action”.
Shortly after the public spat, Heathrow and Emirates announced that they’d had a constructive meeting and reach an agreement. The said airline it would respect the passenger limits that were deemed necessary “to keep demand and capacity in balance”. The apparent retreat by Emirates included acknowledgement that it would reduce seat sales and would “assist Heathrow in its resource ramp up”. While not clear how, it suggests Emirates will help in the effort to hire more staff to work at the airport.
The response to the summer of chaos at UK airports has been far too slow. While welcome, the steps to prevent last-minute cancellations and passenger disruption were implemented too late. Most of the travelling public have now been impacted one way or another. The measures put in place will run out in September. Will the hiring programmes have advanced much by then? We think not and we’ll see that July and August provide only a temporary reprieve. We think further measures will be required by the autumn or we’ll see a return of cancellations and baggage hell. More needs to be done to attract workers back to the aviation sector. At the same time, the sector as a whole must learn to operate with greater agility and with far greater levels of collaboration. Finger-pointing was proven to be a costly error.
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