Weekend of travel chaos begins as Ryanair and EasyJet strikes cause mass cancellations

Thousands of passengers have had flights to or from Spain cancelled

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Travellers in the UK and across wider Europe are braced for a weekend of upheaval due to Ryanair and EasyJet strikes which have forced dozens of flights to be cancelled.

Ryanair cabin crew began their three-day walkout on Thursday in a dispute with management over pay and working conditions.

Fifteen flights to and from Spain were cancelled on Friday and dozens of others delayed due to the latest strike by cabin crew at low-cost airlines Ryanair and EasyJet.

The strikes by staff working in Spain triggered cancellations that are having a knock-on effect on passengers across the continent. Other countries are experiencing parallel industrial action. Paris airports estimated that almost two in ten flights from the city was cancelled on Friday.

Workers at Charles de Gaulle Airport walked out on Friday, the first day of the country’s domestic summer holiday season, and staged protests to demand higher salaries.

The civil aviation authority said 17 per cent of scheduled flights out of Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports in Paris were cancelled between 7am and 2pm on Friday, mostly short-haul routes.

The Spanish action is directly affecting 10 airports across Spain — in Madrid, Malaga, Alicante, Palma, Barcelona, Seville, Valencia, Girona, Ibiza and Santiago de Compostela.

EasyJet staff in Spain went on strike on Friday in a dispute over salary and are set to continue their walkout until Saturday. Further strikes are in the books for this month when demand for flights is set to increase.

EasyJet said staff will again stage walkouts from July 15-July 17 and July 29-July 31.

Cancelled flights in June — the start of Europe’s peak summer season — totalled 7,870 for departures from Germany, the UK, France, Italy and Spain, almost triple the number in the same period in 2019, aviation consultancy Cirium says.

Easyjet passengers queue at check-in desks at Malaga-Costa del Sol Airport. Reuters

Meanwhile, fares on summer routes such as London to Alicante in Spain this week are more than three times higher than the same week last year, travel agent Kayak data shows. Prices from Paris to New York have tripled since March 2019.

The breakdown highlights how a faster-than-expected recovery in air travel has clashed with a massive staffing shortage after deep cuts during the pandemic. Instead of a roaring comeback, the global aviation industry is stumbling, unable to resume operations — at pace with rising demand — from the worst travel slump on record and making what in the past might have been a routine trip more of an odyssey.

The malaise is being exacerbated by strikes across the continent as rampant inflation leads to higher pay demands.

France’s civil aviation authority had already ordered a reduction in flights out of Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport on Thursday due to a walkout by firefighters. Ryanair cabin crew in Spain, Portugal and Belgium staged a three-day strike last weekend, later joined by colleagues in France and Italy. More strikes are scheduled as the continent enters the peak holiday season.

The Paris airports authority warned of potential delays in getting into terminals at the airports and at check-in, passport control and security stations. Unions said the strike could last until late on Sunday.

Workers at the airports are seeking a raise of 6 per cent retroactive to January 1, while management is proposing 3 per cent, French media has reported.

The disorder in mainland Europe mirrors the problems blighting Heathrow in west London this week. The airport asked airlines to remove about 30 flights from the board on Thursday as it struggled to cope with crowds of passengers.

Some people were not informed about their flight being cancelled until they arrived at Heathrow.

The airport, the UK's busiest, insisted the cancellations were necessary for safety reasons.

On Wednesday passengers were caught up in "mile-long queues" for passport control after landing at Heathrow, due to e-gates being out of action.

'Widespread disruption'

Deutsche Lufthansa AG chief executive Carsten Spohr said the situation probably would not return to normal until the end of the year but the turmoil could undermine any recovery in the sector by deterring bookings.

Lufthansa cut about a third of its workforce to 100,000 people after travel restrictions were enacted to slow the spread of coronavirus, leaving it short of cabin crew, ground staff and pilots.

“This summer, we need to tough it out together,” Mr Spohr told staff in a memo after Lufthansa revealed that it was extending cancellations for July and August from 900 flights to 3,100, equating to about 4 per cent of its capacity during the summer peak.

Part of the chaos now wrought on the industry comes from the pandemic fallout, he said. Faced with the prospect of being wiped out by global groundings, airlines took extreme measures to keep their businesses together, he said. “Did we drive some savings too hard? No doubt,” Mr Spohr said.

Strikers demonstrate outside a terminal on Friday at Roissy Airport, north of Paris. AP

An insufficient number of ground-handling staff is among the biggest causes of delays and cancellations. But replenishing depleted staffing ranks has been a slog. That is not surprising considering the nature of the work. Ground crew often have shift times that do not suit family or social life, with some hours extending deep into the night. It can be physically demanding and pay levels hardly compensate for the discomfort.

Long queues have been a hallmark of airports across Britain and Europe in recent months, as the industry struggles to cope with a surge in demand for travel.

Tourists wait at Malaga-Costa del Sol Airport in Spain, from which a number of flights have been cancelled. Reuters

New guide for air passengers' rights

The UK government on Thursday unveiled a 22-point plan to tackle the disruption over summer. The strategy is aimed at avoiding a repeat of the chaos at UK airports during the Easter and platinum jubilee holidays. Tens of thousands of people had their flights cancelled, many at the last minute, and some were stranded abroad for days waiting for travel home to be arranged.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said there was “no excuse for widespread disruption” and holidaymakers “deserve certainty”.

The rush for holidays abroad is set to intensify this week as schools in Scotland and Northern Ireland will break up for summer. The academic year for those in England and Wales ends in three weeks.

The UK government’s action plan includes a number of measures previously announced, such as encouraging airlines to make sure their schedules are “deliverable”, an amnesty on slot rules and permitting new aviation workers to begin training before passing security checks.

A new passenger charter will be published in the coming weeks, providing a “one-stop guide” informing them of their rights and what they can expect from airports and airlines when flying.

Since the disruption during the jubilee bank holiday, ministers and officials have been meeting aviation industry bosses weekly to discuss the summer plans and potential problems that could arise this summer.

“Holidaymakers deserve certainty ahead of their first summer getaways free of travel restrictions,” Mr Shapps said.

“While it’s never going to be possible to avoid every single delay or cancellation, we’ve been working closely with airports and airlines to make sure they are running realistic schedules.

“The 22 measures we’ve published today set out what we’re doing to support the industry.

“It’s now on airports and airlines to commit to running the flights they’ve promised, or cancel them with plenty of time to spare so we can avoid the kind of scenes we saw at Easter and half-term.

“With 100 days having passed since we set out that restrictions would be eased, there’s simply no excuse for widespread disruption.”

Richard Moriarty, chief executive of the Civil Aviation Authority, said: “We share government’s ambitions for resolving the travel issues that we’ve seen in previous months.

“These actions will help the sector to be more resilient in dealing with strong consumer demand.

“We will work alongside government and the wider industry to help deliver a better experience for passengers."

Updated: July 02, 2022, 1:03 PM