Airlines have been urged by the UK to review their summer timetables to ensure they are “deliverable” after weeks of queues and cancellations.
The Department for Transport and the Civil Aviation Authority said on Tuesday that announcing cancellations earlier would be better than axing flights on the day of departure.
They issued a joint letter to the aviation industry calling on companies to take every step possible to “avoid the unacceptable scenes we have recently witnessed”.
Tens of thousands of passengers have been affected by flight cancellations and long queues at airports in recent months, particularly during Easter and last month’s half-term school holiday.
The disruption has been blamed on aviation companies struggling to recruit enough staff to cope with the sharp increase in demand for travel, after thousands of jobs were cut in 2020 owing to the coronavirus pandemic.
Rannia Leontaridi, director general for civil aviation at the Department for Transport, and CAA director Richard Moriarty set out five “specific expectations” for the sector in the letter.
“We think it’s important that each airline reviews afresh its plans for the remainder of the summer season until the end of September to develop a schedule that is deliverable," they said.
“Your schedules must be based on the resources you and your contractors expect to have available, and should be resilient for the unplanned and inevitable operational challenges that you will face.
“While cancellations at any time are a regrettable inconvenience to passengers, it is our view that cancellations at the earliest possibility to deliver a more robust schedule are better for consumers than late notice on-the-day cancellations.”
They urged airlines to have “the processes and resources in place to keep consumers informed” about their rights in the case of flight disruption, such as having “sufficiently staffed call centres and user-friendly digital channels”.
They also suggested that airport chief executives create working groups to bring together airlines, ground handlers, air traffic control and Border Force to “ensure a more co-ordinated strategic approach”.
The letter comes as Oliver Richardson, the national officer for civil aviation at trade union Unite, told British MPs that a ranking of airlines based on the number of cancellations “almost exactly corresponds” with how many jobs were cut during the pandemic.
Giving evidence to the Commons’ business, energy and industrial strategy committee, he said Ryanair, which made no compulsory redundancies, was in a “different position from the likes of British Airways”, which cancelled more than 100 daily flights in recent weeks owing to staff shortages.
It cut more than 10,000 jobs in 2020.
“They did get rid of too many people in a number of instances,” Mr Richardson said.
But British Airways corporate affairs director Lisa Tremble refused to acknowledge that job cuts contributed to cancellations.
Labour MP Darren Jones, who leads the committee, repeatedly pressed her on the issue.
“Do you think there was a connection between sacking 10,000 members of your staff using aggressive fire-and-rehire tactics, and now cancelling the most flights per day?” he asked.
Ms Tremble said “it’s very complicated” and that the company “had to protect as many jobs as possible”.
Mr Jones responded: “We’ve asked you a very direct question, I think three times, and you’ve chosen not to answer it.”
EasyJet chief operating officer Sophie Deckers said the Luton-based airline – which has also announced a large number of cancellations – had plans in place to cope with the surge in demand for travel, but delays in new cabin crew receiving security passes “caught us by surprise”.
She said the vetting process typically took about 14 weeks, compared with 10 weeks before the pandemic.
The delay is due to difficulties many people are having in obtaining references for the jobs they have held in the past five years, with the pandemic often creating complicated employment histories.
“In many cases, people have had 10 jobs in the past couple of years,” Ms Deckers said.
“Maybe some of them were only for a couple of weeks, but we’re required to get a reference from each of those, so that’s what’s taking the length of time.
“We have today 142 crew ready and trained to go online that don’t have their ID passes.”
Sue Davies, head of consumer rights at consumer group Which?, said the aviation industry and the government needed "to shoulder the responsibility for the chaos that we’ve seen”.
She said the sector was “particularly affected” by the pandemic, but emphasised that consumers have “lost money and suffered huge emotional stress”.
She accused airlines of selling tickets when “they don’t know for sure that those flights are actually going to be able to go”.
“There’s just blatant flouting of consumer rights and a failure to put passenger interests first," she said.
The UK's Aviation Minister, Robert Courts, said it was an “exceptionally difficult time” for companies in the industry but that it was “the responsibility of the sector” to ensure it employs sufficient staff.