The aviation minister was warned at the start of the year that the widespread flight chaos witnessed last week was “inevitable” and government intervention was urgently required to prevent such disruption, union sources say.
During a telephone call with aviation unions in late January, Robert Courts was told that the industry wouldn’t be able to cope with high demand unless it received help to offset chronic staff shortages.
Those predictions were played out in sometimes farcical scenes last week, with hundreds of flights cancelled during one of the busiest weeks of the year alongside day-long delays and massive queues snaking out of terminal buildings.
The chaos continued yesterday when at least 20 easyJet flights were cancelled. The budget airline confirmed “a small portion” of flights were cancelled following “issues” at London’s Gatwick airport and Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport.
A Gatwick Airport spokesman said: “Poor weather and air traffic control issues across Europe are restricting the number of flights that can use European airspace and is causing significant delays and some cancellations at Gatwick.”
Sources with knowledge of the call with Courts say that despite concerns being raised about a serious lack of staff after airlines, airports and ground handlers sacked tens of thousands of employees in 2020 because of the Covid pandemic, the government did not offer a solution.
“The minister was directly warned this was inevitable. They have to accept some responsibility,” said a union source.
In turn, transport secretary Grant Shapps last week directly blamed some of the worst affected airlines, warning that the strain on the industry did not “excuse poor planning and overbooking flights that they cannot service”.
A government spokesperson added on Saturday that the industry had a responsibility to ensure they had enough staff and said it needed to “step up recruitment”.
With the half-term holiday and jubilee weekend coming to an end, there were signs yesterday that the worst of the disruption was starting to ease. At Stansted airport in Essex – a hub for easyJet and Tui Airways, which together cancelled dozens of flights last week, some at short notice – staff said the situation was getting back to normal. Passengers landing there on Saturday morning, however, still described shock at the sheer volume of people wanting to fly.
Sisters Margeret Mularkey and Karmel Corbett said they had never seen Dublin airport so chaotic before boarding their Ryanair flight to England. “It was absolutely crazy. Thousands of people everywhere. They were queuing up outside, well into the car park,” said Mularkey.
Corbett believed both the airlines and the government appeared to have been blindsided by how abruptly the demand for flying had bounced back after lockdowns ended.
“They’ve got such an obvious shortage of staff and clearly were not expecting it to go back to previous levels. They must have thought that Covid would deter most people from travelling again,” she said.
Behind them was Brian O’Farrell who said that navigating security at Dublin airport took three times longer than usual. “It was extremely busy,” he said. “It really was very crowded. I’m glad that I decided to only bring a carry-on bag but it still took me an hour to get through security instead of the usual 20 minutes.” Near by at a stall bedecked in yellow and blue to welcome the 100 or so Ukrainian refugees who arrive at Stansted every day, Andy Mitson admitted he was relieved that they had managed to avoid being caught up in the chaos.
Mitson, who volunteers for CVSU, a community charity based in the Essex district of Uttlesford, said: “Disruption doesn’t appear to have been a big problem for the Ukrainians, but to be fair they have bigger issues to think of.”
Meanwhile, hostilities between the government and aviation industry are likely to deepen this week with airlines continuing to lobby the government to relax post-Brexit immigration rules and give EU aviation workers special visas to ease the disruption. Yet the government appears unlikely to change its stance, leaving airlines short of staff as the summer holiday season approaches.
The aviation industry says it is struggling to rehire staff quickly enough to cope, largely because potential employees need to pass security background checks before beginning work. British Airways, for instance, lost about 10,000 employees during the pandemic and has rehired more than 2,000 since, with thousands said to be waiting for security clearance.
Unions argue that the size of staff shortages is evidence that the extent of the job losses highlights the lack of government support during the pandemic, then compounded by airlines cutting too drastically.
A government spokesperson added: “Using our post-Brexit freedoms, we have changed the law to provide the sector with more flexibility when training new employees, which will help it to fill vacancies more quickly.”
The travel problems may this week extend to the railways as passengers were warned they are also likely to face disruption after a strike by train conductors. Members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union at TransPennine Express walked out on Saturday and were due to strike again on Sunday in a protracted dispute over pay. TransPennine Express urged people not to travel, announcing a limited service available for those making essential journeys.
Travel chaos is also in store for Londoners, tourists and workers, with 4,000 tube employees due to go on strike after the Queen’s platinum jubilee weekend celebrations end. Warnings of serious disruption are forecast for Monday with many underground stations, particularly in the centre, set to be fully closed.