Airline passengers are being warned to expect a summer of travel chaos because the industry has failed to keep up with a surge in demand. In recent weeks, we’ve witnessed manic scenes in airports around the world from Austin to Sydney, and Amsterdam to Gatwick as airlines and airports have gone into meltdown.
Unfortunately, there’s little sign that the chaos will improve anytime soon.
In fact, passengers are now being warned to expect months more travel disruption with no quick-fix solutions readily at hand. Expect to see more teary-eyed children and weary parents stranded in airports as staff shortages result in missed flights and last-minute holiday cancellations.
Inevitably, the blame game has already started. Airlines and airport operators are copping a lot of the blame for laying off thousands of staff at the height of the pandemic and failing to recruit back quickly enough. On the other hand, the industry is pointing the finger at governments for the travel misery passengers are now facing.
The truth is, however, that what we’re now witnessing was almost inevitable and due to a myriad of reasons. Let’s explore some of the key reasons behind the current mess:
You can’t just restart an airline overnight
Who would have thought that travel demand would bounce back as quickly as it has? It’s important to remember that back in the early days of the pandemic, the airline industry claimed that it would take years until a significant recovery was witnessed.
Airlines quickly retired older aircraft, found ways to get rid of experienced (and more expensive) staff and prepared for a very long road to recovery. The emergence of new COVID-19 variants only made the prospect of a quick recovery even more uncertain.
Who would have known, then, that multiple highly effective vaccines would be developed or that the emergence of the Omicron would change the course of the pandemic in the way it has?
In hindsight, it’s all too easy to say that the industry should have been more prepared but that’s far too simplistic.
Passengers are to blame
Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce was slammed for blaming long lines at Australian airports over the Easter holidays on passengers being “out of practice” but he may have had a point. After two years of no air travel, airports have reported a sharp increase in the number of bags that need to be rescreened because passengers have failed to comply with security rules.
What happened in Australia is being repeated in airports across Europe and elsewhere, although the “out of practice” excuse is simply compounding other issues that need to be urgently addressed
Security processes are old fashioned
Many of the bottlenecks we’ve witnessed in recent weeks are at airport security checkpoints and, apart from staff shortages, the main reasons are underinvestment in screening equipment and an unwillingness to adopt new screening techniques.
For example, airport chaos in Dublin and at airports across the UK have been blamed on slow security screening. Is it any surprise when passengers are still required to comply with cumbersome and time-consuming rules developed 16 years ago following the liquid bomb plot?
Aviation regulators should allow expedited screening for security vetted airline staff and make airports invest in equipment that allows passengers to pass through checkpoints quickly and without needing to remove their shoes or watches, or remove liquids and electronics from their bags.
The industry doesn’t pay staff enough
After years of staff outsourcing that squeezed wages to the absolute minimum, is it any surprise that workers no longer want to work in an industry that was so quick to fire them when things got difficult?
Some analysts claim the current woes faced by the travel industry are of its own making and that the ensuing chaos could be quickly fixed if airlines and ground handlers were willing to pay staff a competitive salary.
Even the International Air Transport Association (IATA) is telling airlines to offer better pay for workers in high demand roles in order to fix the current mess.
The low pay argument is supported by a resurgence in trade unionism that could see a wave of strike action across the industry and even when the immediate staff shortages are fixed, walkouts could still pose a danger to the sector’s recovery.
Governments failed to provide the industry with enough support
On the other hand, airlines and ground handling companies will tell you that they had little choice but to slash workforces during the pandemic because governments didn’t provide enough financial support.
This argument might be supported by how airlines in different countries are coping but the summer is still young and there is still plenty of time for airlines to flounder.
Government financial assistance alone is no indication of how an airline is now coping. Delta Air Lines benefited from billions of dollars in payroll support during the pandemic but still paid off long-serving staff to further reduce costs. The airline’s operational performance has since plummeted.
Travel restrictions were also a key reason behind the decimation of the airline industry and throughout the course of the pandemic, governments failed to get on the same page on how to manage these confusing rules.
British carriers have partly blamed travel restrictions for the current mess but the UK was one of the last countries to introduce restrictions and one of the first to completely remove them.
Airlines have been too ambitious
The British transport secretary Grant Shapps has accused the airline industry of overselling flights and he might have a point. As passenger demand quickly returned, airline reservation system algorithms responded and airlines started to load their schedules to meet that demand.
There was just one problem – airlines had failed to reconcile staff requirements against their overly ambitious schedules. We’re now witnessing airlines such as British Airways, jetBlue, TUI and easyJet, reduce capacity to meet actual staffing levels.
Due to strong domestic demand, U.S. airlines didn’t suffer as much as carriers in some countries but United Airlines is still fairing better than some of its rivals because it deliberately didn’t overstretch itself when building its schedule over the last few months.
Not that any of this should be a surprise to anyone. The industry has long warned that the post-pandemic return to the skies would be a messy one. Thankfully, many of these problems are short term and sporadic in nature.
In the meantime, pack plenty of patience and come prepared.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.