Airlines were totally unprepared as travel came roaring back

MUMBAI – Airline and airport executives spent the past two years trying to convince everyone it is safe to fly during a pandemic, touting reduced touch points and hospital-grade filters.

Little did they know how overwhelmed they would be once travel came roaring back. From Sydney, where passengers are waiting for hours to check in, to chaotic scenes in India and Europe, where Britain has seen weeks of disruption and Deutsche Lufthansa is cancelling hundreds of flights, the aviation industry does not have nearly enough people to run operations smoothly, even as post-summer demand for travel is still unclear.

As countries reopen borders and Covid-19 curbs fall away, travel has sprung back with such voracity that it has resulted in an unprecedented labour crunch, made worse by the pandemic-induced layoffs of hundreds of thousands of workers, from pilots to cabin crew and ground-handling staff.

Many are in no mood to come back but even if they were, scaling up at such pace is a risk for airlines and airports, with spiralling inflation and economic pressures putting a question mark over how sustainable the current demand really is.

“All airports and airlines are short-staffed at the moment,” said Mr Geoff Culbert, the chief executive officer of Sydney Airport, where almost half the 33,000-strong workforce lost their jobs during Covid-19.

The aerodrome is furiously trying to rebuild but “we are not as attractive a place to work as before”, he said. “There is still an element of concern around job security.”

Having lost their jobs because of the pandemic, many aviation sector employees have moved on to other, less volatile careers and wooing them back is proving tough.

Singapore’s Changi Airport is looking for 6,600 workers, from security to catering staff. One outfit, Certis Group, is offering a $25,000 sign-on bonus, about 10 times the basic monthly salary, for an auxiliary police officer role that would help with traffic and crowd control.

The severe staff shortage, sure to be a topic of discussion at the International Air Transport Association’s 78th annual general meeting that kicks off in Doha on Sunday, has led to delays, cancellations and extreme frustration for both airlines and travellers across geographies. The situation has become so bad that Ryanair Holdings CEO Michael O’Leary called for help from British military personnel, and Australia’s Qantas Airways has taken to cajoling head office staff to work as airport volunteers during the peak July vacation period.

“The staff shortages mean that we are struggling to operate our planned schedule with the quality and punctuality we promise,” Mr Jens Ritter, the CEO of Lufthansa Airlines, said in a LinkedIn post last week, apologising for cancelled flights in Munich and Frankfurt.

“Many people have left the aviation sector during the pandemic and found work elsewhere. Now, our system partners such as airports and caterers are experiencing an acute staff shortage and are struggling to hire new staff.”

The security clearances required for airport work are also dragging on hiring. British Airways has some 3,000 potential recruits stuck in background checks, while over at EasyJet, there are 140 crew members trained and ready but who do not yet have the necessary airside passes.

All that means it may take as long as 12 months for shortages to ease, according to Mr Izham Ismail, CEO of Malaysia Airlines.

“We see this predominantly, very clearly in Europe. We see this in North America. We see it in Malaysia,” Mr Izham said at a forum in Singapore earlier this week. “I believe that stakeholders, policymakers need to work together to resolve all issues.”

How airlines and airports are managing varies from region to region. In Asia, airports have typically been more proactive when it comes to avoiding meltdowns, at times denying airlines permission to add new flights or asking them to reschedule, said Mr Brendan Sobie, the Singapore-based founder of consultancy Sobie Aviation.

Other parts of the world are just hoping for a breather as demand holds, or even begins to wane. “No market is immune to the manpower issues, so any window to address these can be seen as beneficial,” Mr Sobie said.

The need to play catch-up was evident at Sydney Airport last Friday, the start of a long weekend. Queues to clear security for Virgin Australia and Jetstar flights snaked out the door. Beyond the security checks, one barista at a Toby’s Estate cafe said he had made at least 300 coffees by midday, 50 per cent more than usual.

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