Australia (and the world) is still struggling with travel chaos.  But it could have been worse

Australia (and the world) is still struggling with travel chaos. But it could have been worse

Extraordinarily long queues at airports and at immigration and customer desks, frequent delays or cancellations of flights, often at the last minute, lost luggage and now high prices are not limited to Qantas or Virgin, but are the norm globally.

Airports respond by limiting passenger numbers and asking airlines to limit ticket sales. London’s Heathrow created controversy this month when it limited the number of passengers to 100,000 per day and ordered the airlines to stop selling tickets until mid-August. London’s other international airports, Gatwick, and Amsterdam’s Schiphol, have taken similar steps.

The pandemic caused the global travel industry to virtually stop, putting pressure on airlines around the world.

The pandemic caused the global travel industry to virtually stop, putting pressure on airlines around the world. Credit:AP

Airlines, which flowed capacity back into the market as demand returned at a surprising pace, are now taking out capacity to bring their business in line with their current capacity. British Airways has announced plans to cut 10,000 flights between now and the end of October. Qantas and Virgin, along with a number of European and North American carriers, are also reducing capacity.

The core of the problem the whole sector has is people, or rather the lack of them.

Several million people (an estimated 2.5 million) from baggage handlers to pilots were made redundant during the pandemic – Qantas lost the best part of 10,000 employees – as airlines and their service industries tried to save money.

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The extent of the recovery in travel demand and the sharpness with which this demand has returned has accelerated beyond the sector’s ability to respond.

Many of those laid off have found new jobs or are on the verge of returning to an industry that still operates with the cloud of the pandemic hanging over them – the sector is just a new, more deadly strain of the virus away from a new closure – and recruitment , training and security clearance for new employees in worldwide competition for experienced employees takes time.

Schedules are also disrupted by covid-related absence, which exacerbates the effect of the underlying labor shortage on passenger volumes experienced.

The capacity constraints are most intense at airports, which appear to have been even less prepared than airlines for the speed at which the journey has resumed and have greater difficulty in attracting people to offer the basic infrastructure and services required by airlines.

Low wage rates, 24-hour shift lists, physically demanding work and the need to be physically on site are not so appealing in an environment where many workers are now able to spend at least part of the week working from home.

Airports globally are struggling to cope with demand as the world begins to travel.

Airports globally are struggling to cope with demand as the world begins to travel.Credit:Oscar Colman

Some airports and airlines now offer thousands of dollars in “golden hellos” to entice potential employees to sign up while paying storage bonuses to existing workers to ensure they stay.

At the same time, there is a growing labor unrest, with unions in Europe – and Australia – threatening a labor struggle if they do not receive more reward for jobs that have become more demanding after experiencing more than two years of job losses and wage freezes.

Aviation is a huge, complex and fragile ecosystem with countless interdependencies, almost all of which are under acute pressure.

The sky-high price of aviation fuel exacerbates the challenges for airlines – which have massive operational influence in both directions – as they seek to emerge from this period of post-pandemic chaos and regain operational stability.

Globally, airlines have lost more than $ 200 billion since the rise of COVID and continue to lose money today.

The rise in oil prices as the world recovered from the worst pandemic has been exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the West’s efforts to curb oil revenues of the world’s third largest producer.

The price of jet fuel is now, according to the International Air Transport Association, 85.7 percent higher than a year ago. It is now flowing through to the prices, increasing the dissatisfaction among passengers who are asked to pay much more for an unpleasant and unreliable experience.

None of the problems facing the sector can be solved easily or quickly. Over time, if the pandemic is accommodating, they will be resolved as airports and airlines struggling to overcome bottlenecks in operations gradually rebuild their capabilities.

The global nature of the challenges and the reality that the pandemic, its effects and the reactions of governments and other authorities could not have been foreseen, underlines how misunderstood the sometimes vicious criticism of the companies and their leaders – Qantas’ Alan Joyce has been a particular target in this market – can be.

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The pandemic disrupted most and most businesses and continues to do so even though most major economies (other than China) are now in the “live with COVID” phase. Aviation was – and will remain for some time – more disrupted than most.

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