(DailyExpertNews) — Now is the summer of our discontent, Shakespeare didn’t exactly write in ‘Richard III’, but for airline travelers in the US and Europe, that’s exactly what this summer is going to be.
At airports, scenes of passengers queuing at terminal doors or camping in departure halls are becoming increasingly common as delays in security, check-ins and immigration add to chaos.
And then there’s the baggage problem. At London’s Heathrow Airport, photographs showing huge piles of bags separated from their owners have become emblematic of the experiences of many fliers faced with the frustration of reclaiming lost belongings or waiting days to reunite with them. become.
No quick fixes
Airports and airlines are struggling to replace trained workers made redundant during the pandemic.
Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images
All in all, air travel is a bit of a nightmare right now – even a gamble. And the high season is just beginning.
Apparently there are no quick fixes. This week, German airline Lufthansa warned passengers in an email that the situation “is unlikely to improve in the short term”, stressing that stability would not be achieved until the winter.
“There are still too many employees and resources unavailable, not only from our infrastructure partners, but also in some of our own areas,” it said. “Almost every company in our industry is currently recruiting new staff, with several thousand planned in Europe alone.”
So what’s going on? Much of commercial aviation is almost real rocket science, but the problems that airlines and airports currently face are not. Instead, it’s about a much more normal business problem: staffing.
And the airline industry should have seen it coming.
Crowds and queues at airport terminals will become a feature of air travel in the summer of 2022.
“Between their own research, research that my company and others have conducted, and their reservation systems, airline executives should have seen—and thus should have known—that there would be a strong demand to travel again,” said Henry Harteveldt, director at market research and consultancy firm Atmosphere Research.
“They haven’t looked at their own data, misread or misinterpreted it, but this shouldn’t have come as a surprise to airlines.”
In almost all cases, the problem is that during the pandemic too many experienced people have been laid off — either laid off or fired voluntarily — and that airlines, airports and other key parts of the aviation system have not hired and qualified enough people to replace them.
That qualification point is important. As airlines and airports know all too well, there is a whole process involved in giving someone a security pass that allows them to work on an airplane or at the gate of an airport.
In the UK, there’s also the fact that they won’t be able to call on the European Union’s pool of workers after Brexit.
It also often takes quite complicated training to actually get the job done, not least because the appearance of many air travel computer systems seems more at home in the 1980s than in the modern iPhone or Android world.
Addison Schonland, a partner at aviation analytics and reporting firm AirInsight, lists the likely affected sectors as “any part of the air travel system that has employees.”
“Firings are easy, getting people back with the proper security clearance is difficult,” Schonland said. “U.S. airlines in particular have a reputation for being unreliable employers – the boom and bust cycles mean shaky careers – plus the job requires skilled people and trying to work. These people probably have more attractive options now.”
Some problems are related to too much outsourcing.
Recipe for Disruption
Mountains of bags separated from their owners at London Heathrow Airport have become emblematic of today’s air travel problems.
Takuya Matsumoto/The Yomiuri Shimbun/Reuters Connect
At many airports, especially in Europe, important duties such as check-in, security, baggage, gate and airport operations are performed by personnel working for outside companies contracted by airlines and airports. You often see them in a boring uniform that is not the same as your airline’s own employees.
These people do work that is, in some cases, quite arduous — like lifting bags outside in snow and sunshine, working before dawn and late at night, and dealing with increasingly frustrated passengers.
Some of it is also a real issue of industrial relations.
For example, during the pandemic, British Airways has asked some British employees to take a 10% pay cut. Some workers have since increased their pay, but not the check-in staff at Heathrow, who are now willing to go on strike to get it. British Airways has said it is disappointed with the move and hopes to find a way to avoid it industrial action.
It doesn’t matter which side of the Atlantic you’re on, it’s a recipe for disruption.
In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration is struggling with a shortage of air traffic controllers, says Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research.
“Covid-related health restrictions limited the FAA’s ability to hire and train new air traffic controllers in 2020 and 2021,” he says. “In addition, air traffic controllers have to retire at 56, and the calendar didn’t stop in those two years.
“The FAA is actively hiring people to become air traffic controllers, but the training process takes time. Meanwhile, airlines are planning more flights to some destinations, especially Florida, than the FAA can handle.
“So even when the weather is good, the FAA occasionally has to give some flights longer, less direct routes that can lead to delays, in order to spread the burden across their air traffic control centers.”
So what should fliers do?
The best advice I can give you as an aviation journalist who has never experienced so much disruption is to book defensively.
† Consider alternatives to flying, if your journey is possible in less than eight hours by train, boat, bus or car. If you’re not traveling with people who are due to go back to school in the fall, consider traveling in September or October instead of July or August.
— If you must fly, choose non-stop flights on connecting flights if available and affordable. Connections increase complexity and increase vulnerability to cancellation or delay, especially through places where severe weather problems can occur in the summer.
— In Europe, choose the smaller hubs with a reputation for efficiency and no recent major disruptions reported: Munich, Zurich and Vienna are the safest bets.
† Choose flights earlier in the day instead of later — that means more options to travel that same day in the event that your flight is canceled or significantly delayed. Close connections – anything less than a few – should be avoided if possible.
† Choose airlines that offer many flights per day on a route rather than those with just one or two.
† Explore what other options are on a route† If you show up on the day and there are thunderstorms in Dallas or Houston, can you ask the airline to take you through Chicago, Philadelphia, or Dulles?
— Some airlines offer express check-in and security, lounge access and priority boarding as an additional purchase, which is a better deal than ever. Or in the US, consider TSA PreCheck† Log into your reservation every few weeks to see if there are any discounted upgrade options: now is a good time to spend money for extra comfort and quick benefits.
† Join your airline’s frequent flyer program† Not only will you get some miles, but most rebooking systems will somehow prioritize frequent flyers — even those with low mileage. Also use the airline’s app, which makes rebooking easier.
— In case the rebooking options in the app don’t work, phone calls or social media can work† Airlines often respond to direct messages via Twitter. The platform is also good for updates from airlines, airports or even weather conditions.
† Pack lightly and choose to only take hand luggage with you, if you can. If you need to check in bags, keep clothes and all essentials in your carry-on for a few days. Take snacks, chargers and charge your devices with TV and movies. And bring the most important thing this summer — and whenever you travel: patience.
Good luck, and feel free to ask questions on Twitter, where you can find me as @thatjohn.
Top image: Passengers line up in a TSA screening line at Orlando International Airport, May 3. Credit: Kirby Lee/AP
Aviation journalist John Walton specializes in the passenger experience. With over a decade of experience in aircraft, seating, cabins, connectivity, digital, design, marketing and branding, he has a unique perspective on what drives the world’s largest industry. He can be found on Twitter at @thatjohn.