The chaos that has engulfed many major airports in North America and Europe since the start of the summer hasn’t abated much, and news outlets and social media users continue to report hordes of impatient travelers and mountains of misplaced suitcases.
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Canceled flights. long lines. walkouts. luggage is missing.
Sound familiar? The chaos that has engulfed many major airports in North America and Europe since the summer hasn’t abated much, and news outlets and social media users continue 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 day-long strike by its ground staff, who were on strike for better pay.
London’s Heathrow Airport and Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport – two of the largest transport hubs in Europe – cut passenger capacity and forced airlines to halt flights to and from their airports, angering both travelers and airline managers.
Airlines in the US have also canceled and rescheduled 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 airline Ryanair, Neil Sorahan, complained that airports “have a job to do”.
Unclaimed suitcases at Heathrow Airport. The UK’s biggest airport has urged airlines to stop selling summer tickets.
Paul Ellis | AFP | Getty Images
But many of those working in the industry say airlines are also partly to blame for the staff shortages, and the situation is getting bad enough to threaten safety.
CNBC spoke to several pilots flying for major airlines, all of whom reported 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 pervading the industry and exacerbating the chaos that travelers face today.
All airline employees spoke anonymously as they were not authorized to speak to the press.
“It’s an absolute nightmare from a passenger perspective,” a pilot with European low-cost airline easyJet told CNBC.
“At the start of the summer it was absolute carnage because the airlines didn’t know what they were doing. They didn’t really have a plan. They just knew they wanted to try to fly as much as possible – almost as if the pandemic had never happened,” the pilot said.
“But they forgot that they cut all their resources.”
The resulting imbalance has “made our lives an absolute mess, both for the cabin crew and the pilots,” added the pilot, explaining how a shortage of ground staff since the Covid pandemic layoffs – those around Dealing with baggage, check-in, security, and more—has created a domino effect that has thrown flight schedules upside down.
In a statement, easyJet said the health and well-being of employees is “our highest priority”, stressing that “we take our responsibilities as an employer very seriously and provide our employees with local contracts on competitive terms and in accordance with local legislation occupy .”
The industry is now being hampered by a combination of factors: insufficient resources for reskilling, ex-employees unwilling to return and poor pay, which has been largely suppressed since pandemic-era cuts despite much-improved revenue for airlines.
“They have told us pilots that we are taking pay cuts until at least 2030 – except all managers are going back to full pay plus increases because of inflation,” said a British Airways pilot.
“Different governments with their restrictions and no support for the aviation sector” and airport companies are largely responsible for the current chaos, the pilot said, adding that “some airlines have taken advantage of the situation to cut salaries, sign new contracts and lay off staff, and now that things are back to normal, they can’t handle it.”
While many airports and airlines are now hiring new staff and offering better wages, the required training programs and security clearance processors are also being severely cut and overwhelmed, further handicapping the sector.
“They are shocked, it’s unbelievable”
British Airways ground staff were due to go on strike in August over the fact that their full pay had still not been restored – something particularly galling at a time when the CEO of BA’s parent company, IAG, was receiving a £250,000 ($303,000) gross living allowance for the year.
But this week the airline and union agreed on a pay rise to cancel the planned strike, though some employees say it’s still not a full return to their pre-pandemic pay.
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In a statement, British Airways said: “The last two years have been devastating for the entire aviation industry. We have taken action to restructure our business to survive and save jobs.”
The company also said, “The vast majority of layoffs during this period were voluntary.”
“We are fully focused on making our operations more resilient to give our customers the peace of mind they deserve,” the airline said.
IAG CEO Luis Gallego, whose company BA owns, forfeited 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 that for years, a short-term mindset that employees took for granted laid the groundwork for today’s situation.
The airlines “have been happy for years trying to depress wages for a lot of people in the industry, assuming nobody could go anywhere else,” the pilot said. “And now that people are exercising their right to go elsewhere, they’re shocked, which is incredible. I am shocked they are shocked.”
A security risk?
All this stress on airline staff adds to the often-ignored issue of pilot fatigue, all pilots polled by CNBC said.
The legal limit for a pilot’s flight time is 900 hours per year. But for many airlines “that wasn’t the absolute maximum, it was the aim to make everyone’s workload as efficient as possible,” said the easyJet pilot.
“That’s the big concern with us, we have quite a toxic culture, an inordinate amount of work,” repeated the Emirates pilot. “It all adds up to a potential reduction in the margin of safety. And that is a big problem.”
All of this has been combined with low wages and less attractive contracts, say the pilots, many of whom have been reassigned as the pandemic turned air travel upside down.
“A bit of toxic soup from all this, the airports and the airlines are equally to blame. It’s been a race to the bottom for years,” said the Emirates pilot. “They will always just try to pay as little as they can get away with paying.”
A spokesman for Emirates Airline said: “We would never compromise on safety at Emirates and there are strict government regulations on rest and flight times that we comply with for our operations crew. Our air and ground safety record makes it one of the best in the industry.”
They added, “We continue to recruit and retain our flight crew with competitive packages, career progression and other generous benefits.”
“Race to the Bottom”
“Buddy capitalists. Rat race to the bottom. No more respect for qualified workers,” said the BA pilot about the industry’s corporate governance. “They only want the cheapest labor to produce their own big bounty and keep shareholders happy.”
The International Air Transport Association responded to this criticism by stating that “the airline industry is ramping up resources as quickly as possible to meet travelers’ needs safely and efficiently.” It acknowledged that “there is no doubt that these are tough times for workers in the industry, especially where they are in short supply”.
The trade group has issued recommendations “to attract and retain talent in the groundhandling sector,” saying in a statement that “securing additional resources where there are shortages is among the top priorities of industry management teams around the world.”
“And in the meantime,” he added, “the patience of travelers.”