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Britain’s airport chaos

Britain’s airport chaos


Flights are being cancelled and people are queuing for hours at Britain’s airports. What’s causing the chaos and how long will it last?

Michael O’Leary is not one to mince his words. 

As hundreds of flights were cancelled across the UK over the recent bank holiday weekend, the Ryanair boss made a bold demand.

“Bringing in the army, which they do at many other European airports, would, at a stroke, relieve the pressure on airport security and would mean that people have a much better experience not just this weekend but for each weekend over the next three to four months…”

Michael O’Leary, Group CEO of Ryanair

Over 500 flights in and out of the UK were cancelled over the four-day bank holiday weekend, including services run by easyJet, British Airways and Wizz Air. 

easyJet axed 80 flights on the Sunday alone, leaving passengers stranded across Europe and the UK.

Airports were in disarray and, to some desperate travellers, bringing in the army might have sounded like an appealing solution. 

Here are some frustrated travellers speaking to Sky News…

I’m incredibly disappointed that I’ve been put in a position where my partner is going to miss his mum’s 70th birthday…

I’m really annoyed about the flight cancellation because it’s at the last minute and they didn’t told us anything and we have to stay here another day.

20-hour delay on the way to London and now the flight back is cancelled so it’s a bit – a bit! annoying.”

Travellers speaking to Sky News

You might feel like you’ve heard this story before. Airports also saw dozens of cancellations, queues and long delays over Easter. 

So what’s causing the chaos in Britain’s airports?

It might not surprise you to hear that no one can really agree.

“The boss of Ryanair Michael O’Leary has said that pre-Brexit you would have had lots of Eastern Europeans doing baggage handling, the check-in jobs, the airport security jobs – a lot of those jobs are now ones that they cannot fill. They all went home during Covid. He says there’s a real tightness in the labour market which is an absolutely direct result of Brexit.”

BBC Sunday Morning

Michael O’Leary isn’t the only person to blame Brexit. London mayor Sadiq Khan called on the government to relax immigration rules to allow European airport and airline staff to come back to the UK.

The Department for Transport rejected that suggestion, saying the issue lies with the aviation industry, which wasn’t prepared for the holiday period.

“Britain’s Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has told airlines to stop selling tickets for flights they cannot staff, after a series of flight cancellations left tourists struggling to get away on holiday.”

BBC News

UK airlines cut 30,000 jobs as a result of Covid, while airports and other aviation support companies laid off a further 66,000 people.

Since travel restrictions were lifted in March, the industry just hasn’t hired back the staff it needs to cope with renewed demand.  

Take the example of British Airways. They lost 10,000 staff during the pandemic, but have only hired back about a fifth of those people. 

That’s partly because it takes a long time to hire in the aviation industry. 

As Huw Merriman, Chair of the Transport Select Committee, explained to the BBC’s Today programme…

“It can take three months to get staff recruited and through the vetting process, and actually that’s taking longer than pre-pandemic in some stages. And so, as a result, you’ve got the perfect storm, where you haven’t got enough staff in a job market where people are already worried about the future of aviation because they’ve lost jobs and it’s been start-stop.”

Huw Merriman, Chair of the Transport Select Committee

Michael O’Leary’s airline, Ryanair, didn’t cancel any flights over the bank holiday. He says this is down to forward-planning: his company started re-hiring in November, so it isn’t currently short-staffed.

But Huw Merriman says it isn’t all the fault of the airlines.

“I think there’s been a failure to understand that you can’t just flick a switch and expect the aviation industry to restart. There’s a requirement for them to operate 70 per cent of their slots, otherwise they could lose them, so effectively the government and parliament have told them to restart at those levels.”

Huw Merriman, Chair of the Transport Select Committee

Airlines have targets on the number of flights they have to operate, which can lead to unrealistic schedules and last-minute cancellations.

The industry says it’s down to the government to change those requirements.

There’s no sign that’s going to happen anytime soon, so where do we go from here?

The chief executive of Heathrow Airport, John Holland-Kaye, thinks it will take 12 to 18 months for the aviation sector to fully recover capacity. 

Others are similarly pessimistic. Here’s Mike Clancy from Prospect Union, which represents staff in the industry…

“No one wants to be a harbinger of doom but it’s difficult to believe when we’ve experienced it in April, we’ve experienced it in May, that you’re not going to experience it across June, July and August when the volumes are said to increase even further…”

Mike Clancy, Prospect Union

And there could be more problems to come – strikes.

British Airways workers have been calling for the company to reverse a 10 per cent pay cut that was introduced during the pandemic. If they strike, they could walk out during the peak summer travel period.

And last week, hundreds of Heathrow staff began voting on industrial action.

It looks like the turbulence for the travel industry and passengers is set to continue for a while yet.

Today’s story was written by Patricia Clarke and mixed by Imy Harper.