Staff Shortages Prompt UK Flight Cancellations as Demand Rises

 - April 6, 2022, 2:23 PM

A mismatch between capacity hikes in response to the sharp increase in demand for post-Covid air travel and low staffing levels continues to disrupt operations of several UK airlines, though International Air Transport Association (IATA) director-general Willie Walsh dismissed poor planning as a reason for the ongoing flight cancellations and delays faced by mainly British Airways and low-cost counterpart, EasyJet.

BA and EasyJet cut hundreds of services from their schedules to and from the UK over the last few days while airlines in the UK overall canceled 1,143 flights in the week of March 28 to April 3, up from just 197 over the same period in 2019, according to Cirium data. The cancellations come at the start of the Easter travel season and the first holiday since the end of all coronavirus travel restrictions in the UK. Both BA and EasyJet have pointed to higher-than-usual levels of employee sickness as Covid infections across the country spike again, though they insisted that the vast majority of their flights continue to operate as planned. BA’s main London Heathrow hub, and EasyJet’s biggest base at Gatwick, have suffered the bulk of the airlines’ respective cancellations, though other UK airports such as Manchester also face disruptions. Manchester Airport managing director Karen Smart resigned on April 5 in the wake of persisting long delays at security and check-in.  

Speaking during a media briefing discussing the industry’s traffic recovery on Wednesday, Walsh warned of a “short period” of disruption as airlines and airports increase staff to match the increase in demand. He attributed the cancellations and long lines at some airports to a combination of events. “I would be reluctant to say that this is because of bad planning by airlines and airports,” he said. “Clearly, airlines had no choice but to reduce their staff during the period of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021. A lot of people left the industry. I think what we are witnessing at the moment is the difficulties that the airlines and airports face in getting people back in employment, particularly when you have to go through the very stringent background security checks.” Pre-Covid, obtaining those security clearances took on average five to six weeks, the IATA director-general noted. “I hear it is taking much longer than that. This is completely outside the airlines’ and airports’ control and is dependent on resources available in government departments.”

Walsh said he expects the disruptions owing to the staffing shortages to ease and a return to a more normal operating environment in the “next few weeks.” He does not expect demand in Europe to return to 2019 levels but noted what he called a positive situation developing. “Passengers do not appear to be put off by price increases as a result of higher energy prices,” said Walsh.

Regarding the UK, aviation data and analytics firm IBA projects the summer of 2022 to be the busiest since 2019, when more than 100,000 flights a month departed from the country‘s airports. It advises airlines and airports to resolve their staffing issues “quickly" to meet buoyant Easter demand and the start of the summer holiday season.

UK airport trade body Airport Operators Association chief executive, Karen Dee acknowledged that some airport operations in the UK could face “some strain” in the coming months due to a sharp uptick in demand and a combination of what she called a “very tight labor market,” delays in the necessary government security checks for new and returning staff, and Covid-related staff absences.

Meanwhile, Sharon Graham, general secretary of UK trade union Unite, pointed out that the group had warned the aviation sector repeatedly not to use the cover of Covid to slash jobs and pay. “This would render it unable to meet demand when passengers returned,” she said. “Now the sector is suffering from a chronic inability to attract new staff because workers are not attracted to an industry where pay is poor and conditions are lousy.”