Travel chaos: how Europe's airlines and airports lost their allure for workers

Summer of discontent for passengers as aviation industry scrambles for staff

Travellers faced long queues at Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. AP
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Dawn starts, arduous commutes and stress-filled hours take not only a toll on passengers, but travel industry staff as well. And as a painful summer looms for Europe's struggling airports, planners are finding the greatest issue is that employees, post-pandemic, have turned their back on the industry.

For months, airports throughout Europe were hit by major disruptions, with ever-longer queues, cancelled flights or luggage issues and, as the busiest summer months loom, the only available response to the crunch is the last resort: slashing timetables to ease the pressure.

It is an expected and bitterly tough blow for an aviation sector that had hoped in 2022 to shake off any lasting effects of the pandemic.

John Gradek, a lecturer in supply chain, logistics and operations in aviation management at McGill University in Canada, believes the public has lost confidence in the sector.

“The major issues across Europe have been caused by staffing,” he told The National. “The situation has caused the public to lose confidence in the sector. Right now, people see the queues and the thousands of bags stacking up at Heathrow and they don’t want to be subjected to these delays.

“The airlines have really underestimated the capacity of the aviation industry to handle the traffic. They have been doing a lot to get back revenue and profitability, but the infrastructure is just not in place to handle it. People are showing up expecting a travel package sold to them by the airlines and the airports just cannot handle it.

A display at Zurich Airport in Switzerland. EPA

“People will choose not to fly until things return to normal.”

Disruption in London, Amsterdam, Paris, Rome and Frankfurt ruined spring breaks for many. Airlines such as low-cost operator easyJet and British Airways are cancelling hundreds of summer flights with the added headache of strikes looming in Belgium, Spain, France and Scandinavia.

Airlines suffer after premature job cuts

Aviation lost 2.3 million jobs globally during the pandemic, with ground-handling and security hardest hit. It is now struggling to attract people back.

“They are struggling to get people to come back, due to the rates of pay," Mr Gradek said. "People don’t want these jobs any more, they have more choices and can work from home.

“Airports are environments where people have to be on site and many of today’s workers are not willing to do those physical jobs any more. They can work remotely. The industry needs to recognise this and pay more.”

Baggage piled up at London's Heathrow Terminal 2 on June 19. PA

Karim Djeffal, 41, had worked as a service agent at Air France for 21 years until he lost his job in the pandemic.

He started his own job-coaching consultancy and said he would not be returning owing to the unsociable hours. “If this doesn't work out, I won't be going back to the aviation sector,” he said. “Some shifts started at 4am and others ended at midnight. It could be exhausting.”

Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport employees protest over low wages. Reuters

In Germany, employers say many ground workers have joined online retailers such as Amazon.

“It's more comfortable packing a hair dryer or a computer in a box than heaving a 50-pound suitcase crawling into the fuselage of an aircraft”, said Thomas Richter, chief of the German ground-handling employers' association ABL.

Airports in Germany, France, Spain and the Netherlands have tried to offer perks including pay rises and bonuses for workers who refer a friend and leading operators have already flagged thousands of openings across Europe.

Swissport, which provides passenger and cargo handling services at airports around the world, including Schiphol, is offering hiring and retention bonuses as it looks to recruit about 15,000 new employees this year.

“They clearly have alternatives now and can switch jobs,” said senior ING economist Rico Luman.

While he expects travel pressure will ease after the summer, he says shortages may persist as older workers stay away, with fewer younger workers willing to replace them.

Recruits put off by unsociable hours, low pay and poor morale

“Even if there is a recession, the labour market will remain tight, at least this year,” he said.

A major factor slowing hiring is the time it takes new workers to get security clearance — in France, up to five months for the most sensitive jobs, according to the CFDT union.

Marie Marivel, 56, works as a security operator screening luggage at CDG for about €1,800 ($1,900) a month.

She says shortages led to staff being overworked and aggression from stranded passengers eroded morale.

“We have young people who come and leave again after a day,” she said.

“They tell us we're earning cashiers' wages for a job with so much responsibility.”

After disruption in May, the situation in France is stabilising, said Anne Rigail, chief executive of the French arm of Air France-KLM.

Even so, Paris's Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports, where one union has called a strike on July 2, still need to fill 4,000 vacancies, according to the operator.

In the Netherlands, unfilled vacancies are at a record high and KLM's Schiphol hub has suffered hundreds of cancelled flights and long queues.

Schiphol has given a summer bonus of €5.25 an hour to 15,000 workers in security, baggage handling, transportation and cleaning — a 50 per cent increase for those on minimum wage.

“That is, of course, huge, but it still isn't enough,” said Joost van Doesburg of union FNV.

“Let's be honest, the last six weeks have not really been an advertisement for coming to work at the airport.”

As industry leaders held their annual summit in Qatar this week, a major theme was who is responsible for the chaos between airlines, airports and governments.

Summertime strikes

On top of the recruitment issues, low morale is leading to overworked staff and many of Europe's low-cost airlines face more strikes this summer after staff in Spain and France announced new walkouts.

Trade unions representing Ryanair cabin crew in Belgium, France, Italy, Portugal and Spain are calling for strikes, while easyJet's operations in Spain will be hit by a nine-day strike next month. British Airways crew and check in staff voted last week to strike at key times in the summer getaway schedules in pursuit of a higher pay award.

Damien Mourgues, a representative of the SNPNC trade union at Ryanair in France, said the airline did not respect rest-time laws and called for a pay increase for cabin crew still being paid at the minimum wage. Ryanair's low-cost rival easyJet also faces nine days of strikes on different days in July at Barcelona, Malaga and Palma de Mallorca airports.

The European Transport Workers' Federation has called “on passengers not to blame the workers for the disasters in the airports, the cancelled flights, the long queues and longer time for check-ins, and lost luggage or delays caused by decades of corporate greed and a removal of decent jobs in the sector”.

The federation said it expected “the chaos the aviation sector is currently facing [to] grow over the summer as workers are pushed to the brink”.

In Spain, trade unions have urged Ryanair cabin crews to strike from June 24 to July 2 to secure their “fundamental labour rights” and “decent work conditions for all staff”.

“We operate two and a half thousand flights every day,” said Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary, dismissing the strikes. “Most of those flights will continue to operate even if there is a strike in Spain by some Mickey Mouse union or if the Belgian cabin crew unions want to go on strike.”

In an effort to alleviate staffing issues, Heathrow, Gatwick and Schipol have pre-emptively asked airlines to cut a percentage of their flights, prompting a blame game between different sectors of the industry.

“There is a lot of mud-slinging, but every side is at fault in not coping with the resurgence of demand,” said James Halstead, managing partner at consultancy Aviation Strategy.

Swissport chief executive Warwick Brady believes they could face legal challenges from airlines as a result.

“I think that there's going to be some challenges, I suspect legally, to putting caps on airlines,” he said.

“We recruited enough people for the summer schedule and they cut the schedules, so we now have too many people. We are going to have a cost overhang because they are cutting.”

On the road again for staycations

Staycation inquiries have surged by 30 per cent in the UK as many holidaymakers opt to stay closer to home and are not willing to face the risk of a cancelled holiday flight.

Europe’s largest coach tour operator, Shearings, which runs more than 220 holidays in the UK and more than 65 in Europe, has had a boost in bookings.

“The recent air disruption has further fuelled the demand for UK coach holidays and whilst we kept adding capacity for this summer, places are filling fast,” said Ashley Dellow, a director of the company. Because of the popularity of its holidays, Shearings has added extra capacity on its coaches this summer and has launched a new brochure for next year. It expects the staycation trend to continue.

VisitBritain has been tracking domestic consumer sentiment towards travel since May 2020. Its recent survey revealed the top three barriers to people wanting to travel in the UK were the rising cost of living, personal finances and the cost of fuel.

International Air Transport Association director general Willie Walsh said it was disappointing that airports were capping summer schedules, but that it was better to do it now than to cancel flights on the day of service.

“Airlines are resilient. People are flying in ever greater numbers. And cargo is performing well against a backdrop of growing economic uncertainty,” Mr Walsh said.

He played down the difficulties as “hysteria” and said they are not widespread and should ease in time.

“It has been bad for some consumers, and clearly airlines and airports want to apologise for that,” he said.

“But we need to put it into context; it's not at every airport … I haven't witnessed the horror stories I read about in the press.”

Europe's turbulent skies to cause more 'broken dreams'

His optimism is not shared by industry analysts. “Aviation is based on experiences and dreams and, for many passengers, the long queues, lack of services, supply chain issues and delays are taking their toll,” said Beverley Boden of Teesside University’s International Business School.

“Passengers have waited patiently for two years to travel safely, but this latest crisis means there is no end to their woes this year.

“Another summer of disruption is likely as this highly regulated sector needs to recruit thousands of staff to fill the gaps left by the pandemic.

“The wait is over, we can travel by air, but there is turbulence in the skies above Europe.”

Updated: June 25, 2022, 11:36 AM
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