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How the great British getaway became a holiday from hell

·7-min read
Families airport travel chaos - TOLGA AKMEN/EPA-EFE/SHUTTERSTOCK
Families airport travel chaos - TOLGA AKMEN/EPA-EFE/SHUTTERSTOCK

Instead of looking forward to the great British getaway, families up and down the country are starting to fear the prospect of jetting off abroad this summer.

Far from a relaxing break, parents are now facing the prospect of entertaining children as families wait in long queues that snake out of airport terminal buildings hoping that they will make the gate in time.

And they might end up being the lucky ones.

Plenty of holidaymakers may not make it abroad at all, as airlines continue to cancel flights every day with alarming regularity.

Whether it be standing in line waiting to get away, or stuck at home on the sofa because of a cancellation, Britons will rightly ask what on earth has gone wrong this summer?

Why is it that after two barren years during the pandemic, airlines and airports can not get their act together?

Unsurprisingly, there is not one simple explanation. Aviation bosses have been grappling with a cocktail of problems that includes staff shortages, industrial action or chronic underinvestment.

But this does not absolve them of blame.

Failure to 'gear up'

Among the most consistent explanations for the travel chaos by industry chiefs is a lack of staff.

Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, has accused airlines and airports of failing to “gear up” for the summer season and rehire thousands of staff that they had sacked during the pandemic.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps - GUY SMALLMAN/GETTY IMAGES
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps - GUY SMALLMAN/GETTY IMAGES

Bosses concede that there is some truth in this. But they see things differently. After making thousands of staff redundant during the previous two years, they stopped hiring in December as the omicron variant hit Britain.

With Rishi Sunak’s furlough scheme closed – and ministers insisting it would not return – company executives would have had to continue spending their ever-dwindling cash reserves on staff that might not be needed for many months to come.

One aviation sector executive says: “It wasn’t so much that we got rid of people. It was that we put our rehiring programmes of people we made redundant on hold.”

Then, when omicron subsided much more quickly than lockdown zealots predicted, the borders reopened far faster than even the most optimistic industry leaders could have expected.

By February, it was too late, however. Hiring was complicated by a Government-sponsored vetting process that critics said was taking weeks, if not months, longer than usual.

Shapps stepped in to fast-track the process after Easter, but this only dealt with delays in gaining security clearance.

It also did not address a more endemic problem: many cabin crew, baggage handlers and check-in staff that lost their jobs during the pandemic did not want to return to the daily grind of throwing heavy luggage, dealing with stressed out holidaymakers, or trying to calm down drunken stag dos.

Though Jet2 had to deny reports that boss Stephen Heapy blamed recruitment issues on “lazy Brits who live off benefits and sit on their arses”, many of his counterparts privately concede that there is at least a grain of truth in such sentiment.

Brexit to blame?

Johan Lundgren, the Swedish executive that runs easyJet, has led those blaming the staffing shortages on Britain’s exit from the European Union.

Last month he said that 8,000 job applications from EU citizens had to be rejected because they were no longer allowed to work for the airline after Britain’s exit from the European bloc.

His remarks came just a week after Shapps’ junior minister, Robert Courts, said: “On the evidence we have, it looks as if Brexit has little if anything to do with [staffing shortages].”

Heathrow Airport passengers - FRANK AUGSTEIN/AP
Heathrow Airport passengers - FRANK AUGSTEIN/AP

Analysts at HSBC noted that while it was "intuitive" to assume stricter immigration rules post-Brexit were the key driver of staffing shortages that have wreaked havoc on millions of British holidaymakers, there was evidence to the contrary elsewhere in the world.

They said: “The US has a much tighter vacancies-to-unemployment ratio. And while airline bosses have blamed recent disruption on Brexit, it seems to be at least as intense elsewhere in Europe.

“Insofar as Brexit has played into the currency weakness, though, it may have had an effect on inflation.”

Whether it is or it isn’t, Shapps is refusing to relax immigration rules so that foreign workers can fill the job vacancies that still abound in the aviation industry.

Airlines have asked the Transport Secretary to consider a similar approach to that of the lorry driver shortage crisis last autumn.

They asked him to issue baggage handlers and check-in staff with temporary visas similar to those issued to fruit pickers, musicians and religious figures.

Shapps has said that he will “do absolutely everything possible to make sure” holidaymakers are able to get away. However, he added: “The answer can’t always be to reach for the lever marked ‘More immigration’.”

Fast-tracking migrants from Turkey

Countries on the Continent see things differently, however.

As the HSBC note underlines, German holidaymakers are suffering in the same way as their British counterparts.

The response from Berlin is that ministers are planning to fast-track migrants from Turkey into the country.

Vacancies for jobs at check-in desks and baggage handling could be filled by people from the country, which sits outside of the EU, in the near future, they said this week.

Across the Atlantic, US airports are bracing for chaos ahead of Fourth of July holiday celebrations – some of the country’s biggest each year. Over the Memorial Day at the end of May and the Federal holiday Juneteenth weekend a fortnight ago, more than 3,000 flights were cancelled and 19,000 were delayed. A reported 1,800 flights have already been cancelled so far this week.

Unlike Europe, America is also facing a dearth of pilots as airlines fail to keep up with burgeoning demand for domestic flights.

But cancellations across Europe have been more than double those in the US between April according to data from flight tracking company

Airline bosses have insisted that the vast majority of holidaymakers will be unaffected by the chaos.

Nevertheless, the number of flights cancelled this June was 7,870 for departures from Germany, the UK, France, Italy and Spain, nearly three times the number registered during the same month in 2019, according to aviation consultancy Cirium.

Summer of discontent

The big unknown for many bosses is how threatened industrial action will manifest this summer.

British Airways ground crew last week voted overwhelmingly for strikes over pay at Heathrow airport. Union officials said dates would be set for the last two weekends of July to “maximise leverage”.

Dates have yet to be announced and union leaders must provide at least two weeks of notice.

BA is also in talks with its pilots, which want a pay deal that imposes a “salary sacrifice” scrapped and replaced with a new pay round – including increases that reflect surging inflation.

On the Continent, meanwhile, strike action is in full swing. French authorities were today forced to cancel nearly one in five flights in a row with trade unions over pay.

Meanwhile, Spanish staff working for Ryanair and easyJet are going on strike as they demand higher wages amid spiralling inflation.

The wider “summer of discontent”, anchored by industrial action on the railways, could have wider implications for holidaymakers, who may struggle to even get to the airport door. Or risks adding to staff shortages at airports and airlines as employees are left without a way to make it to work.

'Meaningless waffle'

Michael O'Leary Ryanair - TOLGA AKMEN/AFP
Michael O'Leary Ryanair - TOLGA AKMEN/AFP

After overseeing travel chaos, bosses are already battered and bruised – even before the schools break up for the summer. Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair chief executive, has warned that the disruption will continue into the autumn.

Gatwick, Britain’s second-biggest airport, has taken the unprecedented step of limiting the number of flights to 825 in July and 850 in August. At its peak, it would service more than 900 flights normally.

Meanwhile, the tension between Shapps, keen to be seen as cracking the whip on behalf of consumers, and aviation leaders is palpable.

Announcing a 22-point plan to save summer – all of which had been disclosed previously – Shapps said on Thursday that it was “now on airports and airlines to commit to running the flights they’ve promised or cancel them with plenty of time to spare”.

One airline executive responds: “They are meaningless waffle. I’m not sure I’d put any of the items on that list among those that will actually help the industry.”

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