Airlines must review schedules to avoid summer flight chaos, says DfT

Airlines have been told to review their schedules by the government to avoid more flight chaos, as airports and unions said the problems behind recent cancellations would not be fixed by summer.

The Department for Transport and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said airlines should ensure flights on sale are “deliverable”, and cancellations should be made “at the earliest possibility”.

A joint letter to the aviation sector said airlines should “take all possible steps to prepare for and manage passenger demand” to “avoid the unacceptable scenes we have recently witnessed”.

It called on airport chief executives to set up working groups with airlines and ground handlers, and report to a new strategic risk group that ministers would chair to scrutinise plans.

The instructions came as aviation industry representatives and consumer groups told MPs that the government should shoulder some of the blame for the recent disruption at airports, with a lack of support to the sector having worsened the staffing problems.

At a hearing of the Commons’ business, energy and industrial strategy committee, Sue Davies, head of consumer rights at Which?, said many customers had been put in an “awful situation” and seen their rights “blatantly flouted” by airlines.

She said: “Both the industry and the government need to shoulder the responsibility for the chaos that we’ve seen. The airlines and the government were encouraging people to travel again, and we think they’ve just underestimated the capacity issues and the shortages.”

Airports, unions and recruiters said the abrupt scrapping of the UK’s stringent Covid-19 travel restrictions, a lack of certainty over jobs and the early end to the furlough scheme had contributed to problems in rehiring.

Karen Dee, the chief executive of the Airport Operators Association, told MPs: “The industry was decimated. We had two years of virtual non-operation.

“We have bounced back but we are a complex industry with lots of parts … Recruiting with very, very short notice is difficult.”

The Unite union said airlines that had laid off most staff, such as British Airways and easyJet, were facing the most cancellations now. The national officer for aviation, Oliver Richardson, told MPs: “It almost exactly corresponds [with] the companies that carried out the most redundancies and the most significant changes in terms and conditions, and those that didn’t.”

He said that Ryanair is “in a different position from the likes of BA, who … did get rid of too many people in a number of instances”.

“The terms and conditions for those remaining were lessened, and when it comes to attracting people to the industry, it simply isn’t as attractive as it was.”

BA’s corporate affairs director, Lisa Tremble, refused to give an answer about the links between redundancies and the current issues, when asked three times by committee chair Darren Jones: “There’s not a connection between sacking 10,000 staff and not having enough people to fly your planes?”

Tremble said that the airline was “in a very precarious situation” in 2020. “I think the company took a responsible decision,” she said.

Richardson also said that uncertainty over the furlough scheme – ended by the government before the Omicron wave saw much travel barred again – had led to more job losses around the industry.

TUI’s airline chief executive, David Burling, said problems were worse in the UK than in the rest of Europe. He said: “Most of Europe has a security [staffing] issue but not the other things, baggage handling … the shutdown here was more dramatic than elsewhere. The furlough here ended in September and in Europe they carried on ‘til March, April … and we obviously had Brexit.”

An estimated 30% of staff working in airports were migrant workers before Britain left the EU, Simon Calder, the journalist and travel expert, told MPs.

Businesses have faced laborious security checks for new recruits taking up to 14 weeks.

Jude Winstanley, the UK managing director of Swissport, a major contractor for ground staff at airports, said he was employing dozens of people simply to speed up background checks for new recruits.

Asked if the problems would be fixed by summer, union and airport business representatives all said no.