The chaos that engulfed many major airports in North America and Europe since the start of the summer has not abated much, and media and social media users continue to report on hordes of impatient travelers and mountains of misplaced luggage.
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Canceled flights. Long queues. Staff departures. Baggage is missing.
Sound familiar? The chaos that has engulfed many major airports in North America and Europe since the summer has not abated much, and media and social media users continue to report on hordes of impatient travelers and mountains of misplaced luggage.
Just this week, German carrier Lufthansa canceled almost all of its flights to Frankfurt and Munich, stranding around 130,000 passengers due to a one-day walkout by its ground staff, who were on strike for better pay.
London’s Heathrow Airport and Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport – two of Europe’s biggest travel hubs – reduced their passenger capacity and required airlines to cut flights in and out of their airports, angering travelers and line managers. aerial.
US carriers have also canceled and delayed tens of thousands of flights due to staff shortages and weather problems.
Airlines are loudly blaming airports and governments. On Monday, the chief financial officer of European low-cost carrier Ryanair, Neil Sorahan, complained that airports “had a job to do”.
Unclaimed luggage at Heathrow Airport. The UK’s biggest airport has told airlines to stop selling summer tickets.
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But many in the industry say the airlines are also partly responsible for the staff shortages, and the situation is becoming dire enough to threaten safety.
CNBC spoke with several pilots who fly for major airlines, all of whom described fatigue from long hours and what they said was opportunism and a desire to cut costs as part of a toxic “race to the bottom” culture. that permeates the industry and exacerbates the mess. the situation travelers are facing today.
All airline staff spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
“From a passenger perspective, it’s an absolute nightmare,” a pilot for European low-cost carrier easyJet told CNBC.
“Leading into the summer, it was absolute carnage because the airlines didn’t know what they were doing. They didn’t have a proper plan in place. All they knew they wanted to do was try to fly as much as possible humanly possible – almost as if the pandemic had never happened,” said the pilot.
“But they forgot they were going to cut all their resources.”
The resulting imbalance “has made our lives an absolute mess, both cabin crew and pilots,” the pilot added, explaining how it has created a shortage of ground staff since the pandemic layoffs — those who handle baggage, check -in, safety and more. a domino effect that is throwing a wrench into flight schedules.
In a statement, easyJet said the health and wellbeing of employees is “our highest priority”, stressing that “we take our responsibilities as an employer very seriously and employ our people on local contracts on competitive terms and in accordance with local legislation “.
The industry is now hamstrung by a combination of factors: a lack of sufficient resources for retraining, former staff unwilling to return and poor pay that has remained largely suppressed since pandemic-era cuts despite significant improvement in revenue for airlines.
“They’ve told us pilots we’re on pay cuts until at least 2030 – except all managers are back on full pay plus inflation,” one pilot told British Airways.
“Different governments with their restrictions and no support for the aviation sector” as well as airport companies are largely to blame for the current chaos, the pilot said, adding that “some airlines took advantage of the situation to cut wages, sign new contracts and lay off workers, and now that things are back to normal, they can’t make it.”
While many airports and airlines are now recruiting and offering better wages, the necessary training programs and security clearance processors have also been cut and severely overworked, further hampering the sector.
“They’re shocked, which is unbelievable.”
British Airways’ ground staff went on strike in August over the fact that their full pay had not yet been reinstated – something particularly poignant at a time when the CEO of BA’s parent company, IAG, was given a gross living allowance of £250,000 £ ($303,000). for the year.
But this week, the airline and the workers’ union agreed on a pay rise to cancel the planned strike, although some staff say it is still not a full return to their pre-pandemic pay.
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In a statement, British Airways said: “The past two years have been devastating for the entire aviation industry. We took action to restructure our business to survive and save jobs.”
The company also said that “the vast majority of layoffs during this time period were voluntary.”
“We are fully focused on building resilience into our operations to give customers the security they deserve,” the airline said.
IAG CEO Luis Gallego, whose company owns BA, lost his £900,000 bonus in 2021 and took voluntary pay cuts in 2020 and 2021, and did not receive his 2020 bonus.
A pilot flying for Dubai’s flagship Emirates Airline said a short-term mentality that took employees for granted had been building the foundations for today’s situation.
Airlines “were happy to try to undercut a lot of people in the industry for years, assuming nobody had anywhere else to go,” the pilot said. “And now that people are exercising their right to go somewhere else, they’re shocked, which is unbelievable. I’m shocked that they’re shocked.”
A security risk?
All of this stress for airline staff comes on top of the often-ignored issue of pilot fatigue, all of the pilots interviewed by CNBC said.
The maximum legal limit for a pilot’s flight time is 900 hours per year. But for many airlines, “this was not seen as the absolute maximum, but as the objective to make everyone’s workload as efficient as possible,” the easyJet pilot said.
“That’s the big concern with us is that we have a pretty toxic culture, an excessive amount of work,” echoed the Emirates pilot. “All of this adds up to a potential reduction in the margin of safety. And that’s a big concern.”
All this has combined with low wages and less attractive contracts, pilots say, many of which were rewritten when the pandemic turned air travel on its head.
“Bit of a toxic soup of all this, airports and airlines share an equal level of blame. It’s been a race to the bottom for years,” the Emirates pilot said. “They’ll only ever try to pay as little as they can get away with paying.”
Emirates Airline did not respond to a CNBC request for comment.
‘Race to the End’
“Croaty capitalists. Rats race to the bottom. No respect for skilled labor now,” the BA pilot told the industry’s corporate leadership. “They just want the cheapest labor to produce their big bonuses and keep the shareholders happy.”
The International Air Transport Association said in response to these criticisms that “the airline industry is increasing resources as quickly as possible to safely and efficiently meet the needs of passengers”. He acknowledged that “there is no doubt that these are difficult times for industry workers, especially when they are out of work.”
The trade group has issued recommendations “to attract and retain talent in the land handling sector”, and said in a statement that “providing additional resources where shortages exist is among the top priorities of industry management teams around the world”.
“And in the meantime,” he added, “the patience of the travelers.”