WI brought him home from vacation, eventually, on the third day of trying. Not bad, really, by the standards of this hellish summer. Better than being stuck for 21 hours in traffic outside Dover with a screaming baby on the back and non-stop for miles. Or sitting on the tarmac for six hours in a heat wave without food or drink, as the inmates of an American Airlines flight to New York reportedly did this week. At least I wasn’t missing a wedding or funeral, even (as a desperate passenger on what was supposed to be our flight home) trying and failing to get back for a sister’s graduation.
All we had to contend with was a series of last-minute changes to our tickets, followed by someone else’s plane breaking down on a runway in New Jersey and setting off the now woefully familiar chain reaction: delayed take-offs, planes jumbo jet queuing on disabled runway. to unload increasingly stressed passengers at the gates, a missed connection, a day and a night unexpectedly stuck at Newark airport. There’s only so much time you can kill rocking the Donald Trump “I’ll be back!” Commemorative Kamala Harris t-shirts and socks for sale in the airport gift shop.
Still, we managed to get on another flight the next evening, which was in the air for a hopeful hour before hydraulic fluid started leaking somewhere over Canada, prompting a scramble back to Newark and a runway full of emergency vehicles. . The rest, to be honest, is a blur. After more than 48 hours in transit, everything takes on a faint dreamlike quality, clouded by living on a diet of airline meals and never being sure what time it is in real life.
Travel chaos is the epitome of first-world problems, of course, limited to those lucky enough to afford vacations. But if it’s a complaint of luxury, it’s also an illuminating one, a lens through which something can finally come into focus. Getting away in the summer is something most people take for granted. When even boarding a Channel ferry becomes a heroic expedition against the odds, the sense of things breaking down at the seams is palpable.
The Home Office has failed in plain sight for years. But when more than half a million people are waiting to renew their passports, these failures become impossible to hide even from those who would not normally notice them. Meanwhile, nothing brings home the reality of Brexit like blocked motorways in Kent. Now a summer of airmageddon threatens to expose some painful truths about post-pandemic working life as well.
Ryanair’s never knowingly understated boss Michael O’Leary has blamed the canceled flights on a government that “couldn’t run a cake shop”, along with airports failing to prepare for a predictable summer rush, which which seems at least partially true. Ryanair was more willing than some to lift travel bans; the company kept its staff through the lockout (albeit by imposing an unpopular pay cut), and is visibly irritated with airports canceling slots at the last minute, causing it to turn angry passengers off otherwise viable flights. But this is not a universal story. We were told to arrive at Heathrow four hours before our flight, where we found the longest queues not at security, but at poorly managed airline checks. Many carriers who dumped their staff like hot potatoes during Covid seem surprised they haven’t come running back now that it’s over. Why be loyal to bosses who didn’t show such care for you?
Worldwide, around 400,000 aviation staff were laid off, made redundant or warned they would face redundancy in the spring and summer of 2020. Many now show little inclination to return and save the companies that made them feel available. Pilots who were leaving the RAF a few years ago for a seemingly more lucrative life flying civilian aircraft are now turning in the opposite direction. Thanks to an extremely tight job market, cabin crew are finding they have options other than an industry known for cutting costs (Lisa Nandy, the shadow level secretary whose constituency includes workers at Manchester Airport, says heard from crew who take pot noodles with them on layovers because their company meal allowance no longer covers the cost of dinner when they land). Among those who stayed on board, discontent seems to be growing. While we stared at the departure boards at Newark flashing with cancellations, Lufthansa was canceling hundreds of flights across Frankfurt and Munich as staff walked out. British Airways pilots are threatening another strike over pay and conditions.
Long before Covid-19 hit, the aviation industry had become a “skin of the teeth” operation, operating on punishingly tight margins. At first, airlines cashed in on voracious consumer demand for cheap fares by charging for things that used to be free. Do you want to sit next to your kids, or take a real suitcase with you? This will be extra. But lately things have taken a darker turn. American Airlines’ pilot union recently accused the companies of “trying to fly more planes than they can actually fly and building these schedules to an inhumane level,” prompting calls in the US for an investigation into the industry’s biggest wide. If you can’t feel sorry for the stranded vacationers, then spare a thought for the short-staffed crews bearing the brunt of their wrath as you watch colleagues drop like flies in a new wave of Omicron. The captain of our aborted Newark flight was pulled from standby after the original pilot fell ill at the last minute, and when we finally took off five hours late, it was only because the crew volunteered to extend the workday; board quickly, we were warned, or there will be no crew at all (there are legal limits to how long they can work without a break). Watching the exhausted-looking flight attendants run through the take-off routines was the first time I’d ever felt a jolt of nerves, rational or not, about flying.
Memories fade almost as quickly as holiday tans, so maybe by next summer we’ll just have forgotten what it was like. But not everything can be shaken off as easily as sand from a beach bag, and a lasting legacy of recent years may be a new sense of fragility: the insecurity born of the sense that loyalty is not rewarded, jobs are not for life, things that once taken for granted can no longer be guaranteed and something somewhere may be worn beyond repair. Fasten your seat belts: this means turbulence ahead.