On the tarmac at Gatwick at the start of half-term, thousands of miles from the Cyprus seaside destination where their plane should have already landed, a cry that spoke for countless passengers filled the cabin: “I don’t need this … It’s out of my control, completely out of my control.”
The cry came, worryingly, not from a passenger but from the pilot of the Wizz Air plane, and was captured on a TikTok video that went viral. Now, with chaos gripping the industry, airline and airport chiefs seem to be floundering victims of circumstance just as much passengers and pilots. So where do the problems lie – and will they be fixed in time for summer?
Looking back on their situation two years ago, airlines might welcome the current turbulence: back then, with coronavirus sweeping the world, most had not flown a passenger for months. More aviation businesses were tipped for demise than for a swift recovery. Even in early 2022, much leisure travel was ruled out by the Omicron variant.
But demand for holidays and flights has boomed: airlines are back to about 85% of 2019 flight capacity around Europe. However, an industry that lost many of its staff – thousands made redundant, others lured to other sectors, some gone after Brexit – has yet to fully replace them.
Discussions over where the fault lies have animated government and industry meetings. Were furlough schemes generous enough? Were travel restrictions scrapped too suddenly? Were aviation businesses too slow to respond?
Passengers tend to blame the airline they booked with – and much of this blame has fallen on easyJet. Britain’s biggest carrier cancelled hundreds of flights, many just before departure, upending the plans of tens of thousands of passengers – again. A withering letter from the French pilots’ union accused managers in Luton of presiding over “unprecedented chaos” – cancelling viable flights and waiting too long to scrap others.
EasyJet can blame external factors – chaos at Schiphol in Amsterdam, air traffic control issues, even freak weather – but competitor Ryanair, which is operating more flights now than in 2019, has flown on. Like British Airways, easyJet has also suffered the self-inflicted mayhem of a huge IT failure.
BA, though, chose to chop hard and early, cancelling many summer flights after a dire Easter rather than risk more last-minute failures. EasyJet has not yet followed suit.
Some sources say the board, led by chairman Stephen Hester, may get twitchy. Chief executive Johan Lundgren, who pledged to use data to reduce disruption and cancellations when he took the job in 2017, and chief operating officer Peter Bellew, formerly of Ryanair, would probably be first in the line of fire.
A spokesperson said: “Since April, easyJet has been operating around 1,700 flights and carrying around 250,000 customers every day. However the ongoing challenging operating environment continues to have an impact and we are sorry for the cancellations in recent days. EasyJet remains absolutely focused on our daily operation and continues to monitor this very closely, and will not hesitate to take additional action as needed.”
The airline claims not to have direct recruitment issues, and retains a similar level of standby crews as pre-Covid. It did, however, take rows of seats out of its A319s to cut the numbers of crew needed on each flight.
Despite low pay and antisocial hours, the perceived glamour of cabin crew jobs still brings plenty of applicants. (This is less the case for security and ground handling jobs.) Yet across the industry, new recruits have waited months to clear background checks.
EasyJet has suffered particularly at Gatwick, where it is by far the biggest airline. The airport, part-mothballed during Covid, made many employees redundant; those that stayed faced pay freezes and an uncertain future. This year, the Unite union won a startling 10% wage rise from easyJet’s outsourced ground handler, DHL, underlining the shift in power in the labour market.
Much of the customer experience relies on such contractors, in check-in and bag handling. Delays and cancellations can be caused by the knock-on effects of a problem at a different airport – fuelling what has risked becoming an unseemly blame game.
Difficulties can snowball, particularly for budget airlines with quick turnaround times: delayed boarding means schedules slip not just for crew, whose hours are limited for safety reasons, but for outsourced staff who might serve several airlines. They can further escalate when, for example, the bags of passengers who miss a flight because of congestion at security have to be taken off the plane. And more staff are needed to help those stranded.
Heathrow boss John Holland-Kaye has warned that it could take 18 months to get the system fully staffed. Individual firms and airports that say they are confident in their own recruitment still express doubt about the rest of the system that keeps flights aloft. And analysts wonder about resilience: an industry that was nearly bankrupted can barely afford to employ surplus staff – and not on the kind of long-term contracts that would entice many in a tight labour market.
Meanwhile, the perennial stings of summer, air traffic control strikes, are likely to recur. Even without these, an ominous Eurocontrol note last week warned that several air navigation services did not have capacity for the flights planned, and that the next six weeks would be “extremely challenging for many airports”.
BA took the plunge in late April and cut 10% of its capacity until late October, about 100 flights a day. Should easyJet have cancelled more flights? Airlines and travel companies, hungry for revenue, had long noted the huge pent-up demand from customers desperate to travel abroad this summer, whatever the cost. Some were still using vouchers or refunds from trips booked back as far as 2019.
Equally, many fear that customers will tighten their belts when it comes to winter and booking for 2023, when huge energy bills will widen the cost of living crisis. Higher wage and fuel costs will push air fares up sharply this year.
Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary was uncharacteristically magnanimous about easyJet’s turmoil in recent interviews, even as his own airline trumpeted its zero cancellations in the past month: “We all make mistakes and we’re all human.” His own airline is threatened by Spanish strikes, though Ryanair, largely Stansted-based and with few flights at Schiphol, has avoided some of easyJet’s worst nightmares.
For some, easyJet’s travails are simply the bad luck that can befall any airline, magnified by its size, the state of the industry, and the half-term rush. Other carriers are not immune: KLM flew empty planes back to its Schiphol hub rather than add to the congestion; Lufthansa last week cancelled 900 summer flights; Tui, BA and Wizz Air have suffered late cancellations. And as Wizz’s boss, József Váradi, last week told weary staff – as he watched a £100m share price-linked bonus ebbing away – it was causing “huge reputational and financial damage”.
Can it possibly be fixed in the six short weeks before the summer holidays? More staff are joining the industry all the time, and security clearance is speeding up. Covid restrictions may ease further. Border queues for Brits holding post-Brexit blue passports may, possibly, diminish.
But don’t bank on it. As some insiders suggest, passengers may have also forgotten just how grim and crowded a peak-season airport normally looks. It’s the price of a holiday. Welcome back.