The chaos that has engulfed many major airports in North America and Europe since the summer began has not abated much, with news outlets and social media users continuing to report hordes of impatient travelers and mountains of misplaced suitcases.
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Canceled flights. Long lines. Personnel line. Missing luggage.
Sounds familiar? The chaos that has engulfed many major airports in North America and Europe since the summer has not abated much, with news outlets and social media users continuing to report hordes of impatient travelers and mountains of misplaced suitcases.
Just this week, German airline Lufthansa canceled almost all of its flights in Frankfurt and Munich, stranding around 130,000 travelers due to a one-day strike by ground staff on strike for better pay.
London’s Heathrow Airport and Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport – two of Europe’s biggest travel hubs – slashed passenger capacity and required airlines to cut flights in and out of the airports, angering travelers and airline executives alike.
Airlines in the US have also canceled and delayed tens of thousands of flights due to staffing shortages and weather problems.
Airlines loudly blame airports and authorities. On Monday, the chief financial officer of low-cost airline Ryanair, Neil Sorahan, complained that airports “had one job to do”.
Unclaimed suitcases at Heathrow Airport. Britain’s biggest airport has asked airlines to stop selling summer tickets.
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But many of those who work in the industry say that the airlines are also partly responsible for the lack of staff, and the situation is becoming so serious that it could 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 makes the mess worse. the situation travelers face today.
All of the airline’s employees spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
“From a passenger point of view, it’s an absolute nightmare,” a pilot for European low-cost carrier easyJet told CNBC.
“Leading into the summer it was an absolute bloodbath 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 humanly possible – almost as if the pandemic had never happened,” said the pilot.
“But they forgot that they would be cutting all their resources.”
The resulting imbalance has “made an absolute mess of our lives, both cabin crew and pilots,” the pilot added, explaining how a shortage of ground staff since the pandemic layoffs — those who handle baggage, check-in, security and more — has created a domino effect that throws a wrench into the flight plans.
In a statement, easyJet said the health and wellbeing of staff is “our highest priority”, stressing that “we take our responsibility as an employer very seriously and employ our people on local contracts on competitive terms and in line with local legislation.”
The industry is now hampered by a combination of factors: not having enough resources for retraining, former employees who do not want to return, and poor wages that have remained largely suppressed since pandemic cuts, despite significantly improved revenues 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 pay rises for inflation,” said a British Airways pilot.
“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, create new contracts and lay off people, and now that things are back to normal, they can’t do it.”
While many airports and airlines are now recruiting and offering better wages, the required training programs and security clearance handlers are also severely reduced and overwhelmed, further hampering the sector.
“They’re shocked, which is incredible”
British Airways’ ground staff were due to strike in August over the fact that their full pay had still not been reinstated – particularly stinging at a time when the chief executive of BA’s parent company, IAG, was given a gross living allowance of 250,000 pounds ($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 employees say it is still not a full return to their pre-pandemic wages.
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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 provide customers with the security they deserve,” the airline said.
IAG boss Luis Gallego, whose company owns BA, lost his £900,000 bonus in 2021 and took voluntary pay cuts in 2020 and 2021, not receiving his 2020 bonus.
A pilot who flies for Dubai’s flagship Emirates Airline said a short-term mindset that took employees for granted for years had laid the foundation for the current situation.
The airlines “were happy to try to drive down wages for a lot of people in the industry for years, under the assumption that 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 incredible. I’m shocked that they’re shocked.”
A security risk?
All of this stress for airline employees comes on top of the often-ignored issue of pilot fatigue, all of the pilots interviewed by CNBC said.
The legal maximum limit for a pilot’s flight time is 900 hours per year. But for many airlines “it wasn’t seen as the absolute maximum, it was seen as the goal to try to make everyone’s workload as efficient as possible,” the easyJet pilot said.
“That’s the big concern with us is that we have quite a toxic culture, an excessive amount of work,” the Emirates pilot reiterated. “All of this contributes to potentially reducing the margin of safety. And that’s a big concern.”
All this has been combined with low pay and less attractive contracts, the pilots say, many of which were written about when the pandemic turned air travel upside down.
“A bit of a toxic soup of all these, the airports and the airlines share the same blame. It’s been a race to the bottom for years,” the Emirates pilot said. “They’re just going to 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 Bottom”
“Crony capitalists. Rat race to the bottom. No respect for skilled labor now,” the BA pilot said of the industry’s corporate governance. “They just want the cheapest labor to produce their own big bonuses and keep shareholders happy.”
The International Air Transport Association said in response to this criticism that “the airline industry is increasing resources as quickly as possible to safely and efficiently meet the needs of travelers.” It acknowledged that “there is no doubt that these are tough times for the industry’s workers, especially where they are in short supply.”
The trade group has made recommendations “to attract and retain talent in the ground handling sector,” saying in a statement that “securing additional resources where shortages are among the top priorities of industry leadership teams around the world.”
“And meanwhile,” it added, “the patience of travelers.”