The transport secretary is rejecting calls for an emergency visa for aviation workers to tackle the chaos at airports that has marred the half-term holiday, industry bosses have reportedly claimed.
Sources in the sector speaking to the BBC accused Grant Shapps of ruling out filling shortages of ground and air staff by amending the government’s shortage occupation list.
The UK’s understaffed airports have struggled to cope with a rise in demand during half-term, with tourists hit by lengthy queues and flight cancellations.
More than 30,000 employees have been laid off by British airlines over the past two years. Half-term is the industry’s first significant test since UK Covid travel restrictions were lifted in March, with the head of one airport saying it takes time to rebuild staff numbers.
Although queues appeared to have died down by Thursday, there are fears the industry will not be able to cope with the resurgence in demand in July and August.
The Department for Transport and the aviation industry have set up a group to discuss mitigating travel issues in time for the summer holidays.
Privately, bosses have questioned why some people – including chefs and ballet dancers – are entitled to a skilled worker visa while aviation employees are not.
Ian Costigan, the interim managing director of Manchester airport, said: “Since the turn of the year, we have worked to recruit the people we need to support the recovery of our operation. This takes time due to the lengthy background checks and training involved, but we have been really encouraged by the level of interest.”
The airport has recruited 340 people this year, with a further 500 undergoing security checks.
Shapps met aviation industry bosses on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the travel chaos. Afterwards he said resourcing strains on the sector do “not excuse poor planning and overbooking flights that they [airlines] cannot service”. He said he had also conveyed concerns that airline passengers were being unfairly sold tickets for holidays they could not go on.
The GMB union, which represents many aviation workers, accused the transport secretary of being disingenuous over the comments, given that issues with staffing levels “have been on the radar for a long time”.
Andy Prendergast, the national secretary of GMB, told BBC Radio 4’s World at One: “This unfortunately was a foreseeable problem. It was one we warned about at the point at which the mass redundancies were made.
“We asked the government to look at the aviation industry as a special case and they refused. And now, quite frankly, for Grant Shapps to come out as he has in the last 24 hours is a little bit disingenuous considering these problems have been on the radar for a long time.”
Those in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting with Shapps included British Airways, easyJet and Tui – all of which have made cancellations – while airports represented included Gatwick, Birmingham, Bristol, Luton and Newcastle.
The Department for Transport said the government and aviation industry would form a working group before the summer holidays to “work through issues of shared concern together”.
Data from the aviation company Cirium said 377 flights from UK airports were cancelled in the seven days up to and including Tuesday.
The air travel disruption had eased by Thursday, with queues at Heathrow said to be a quarter of the length of a couple of days ago.
Nevertheless, half-term holidaymakers were warned to expect road travel woes as the four-day bank holiday got under way.
More than 19 million drivers are expected to take to the roads over the platinum jubilee weekend, according to a survey by the AA.
Andy Marchant, a traffic expert at the location technology firm TomTom, said motorists could expect high levels of congestion as people travelled on roads amid celebrations for the Queen’s 70 years on the throne.
City of London police warned of road closures in the capital from Thursday evening until Friday afternoon because of the royals attending a service of thanksgiving at St Paul’s Cathedral. Meanwhile, jubilee street parties, the majority of which are expected to take place on Sunday, will lead to many routes being closed.
Eurostar, which has also suffered from severe delays this week, warned on Thursday morning that customers could expect further disruption after a fatality on the tracks in northern France.
In a statement on social media, the rail operator wrote: “Please arrive at the station at the time stated on your ticket. If you miss your onward connection please speak to a member of our staff. We apologise for the impact this may have on your plans.”