Travel Radar looks at some of the causes of the airport staffing gap and what is being done to fix it.

What is the Staffing Gap?

Since the lifting of travel restrictions in March, airports have been buckling under the pressure of increased passenger numbers. In the past few months, we’ve seen check-in queues at regional airports extend outside the building and passengers waiting for hours to get through security, only to find they’ve missed their flights. On top of that, around 200 flights to and from the UK are being cancelled every day.

Queues at Manchester Airport
Queues at Manchester Airport | ©  Ioannis Alexopoulos / LNP

So how did we end up here? It started during the pandemic. With demand for air travel severely reduced, airport and airline staff were either put on furlough, made redundant, or quit of their own accord. Pilots retired at double the usual rate during the pandemic, and other employees found work in similar sectors like hospitality or logistics.

When the UK government removed travel restrictions in March, airports weren’t ready for passengers to come back all at once. Data from the CAA showed passenger numbers almost doubling from February to April this year, going from 10 million to 18 million across the UK’s airports. And the numbers keep growing as we approach the summer, the peak season for aviation. Meanwhile, airports are struggling to recruit staff to meet the demand. Heathrow’s Chief of Staffing Nigel Milton commented:

“Last year, we had 20 million passengers, which we last had at Heathrow in the early 1970s. This year we’re going to have 55-60million passengers, which we had in about 2010, so what took us 40 years, to go between 1970 and 2010, we’re going to go through in four months.”

Why is it so Difficult for Airports to recruit people?

A key issue for airports is that their workers need to be security vetted before starting work. This process can take up to 12 weeks, slowing the rate at which airports can hire new staff. It also makes it harder for airports to compete with other industries looking to hire.

british airways staff
Many airport and airline staff moved on to other industries during COVID | © Mike McBey

“As a result of Covid, there are less people around at the moment for those kind of roles,” says Milton, Adding, “It’s not just in the aviation sector; we’re seeing this in hospitality, bus drivers, taxi drivers, train drivers, restaurants – there is a lack of available resource.” Jobseekers are less likely to work in aviation with its three-month waiting time when they could choose another job and get paid immediately. “If you go for a job at a restaurant, or if you go for a job at Westfield, you can have the interview on a Friday and start the job on Monday and immediately bring in money”

Back in April, the UK government said that it would try to streamline the vetting process, but nothing has been said about it since. Instead, airlines have come up with their own ways to help incentivise potential applicants. This year British Airways and easyJet introduced a £1000 starting bonus for new recruits, dubbed the “golden handshake”, in an effort to enrol more staff.

easyJet are offering their crew a 1000 bonus
easyJet are offering their crew a £1000 bonus | © easyJet

Airlines have gotten creative with how they use their staff too. Last month, easyJet removed a row of seats from some of its A319s so they could be flown with three flight attendants instead of four. Around the same time, British airways opened up their first overseas short-haul base in Madrid so that they could employ more crew from their sister company, Iberia.

Despite all this, more needs to be done to help fix the problems faced by the UK’s aviation sector.

What is Being Done to Fix the Staffing Gap?

Airlines, Airports and the UK government are all implementing changes that will help ease the strain. At present, there are still more flights being booked for this summer than airlines and airports can deal with.

Last week, the DfT and CAA joined forces to ask airlines to reduce their summer schedules in order to avoid the flight cancellation nightmare that could be in store for us this summer. In response, some carriers have voluntarily started cutting some of their flights.

Gatwick Airport aircraft
London’s airports have some of the worlds most valuable airport slots | © Peter Nicholls / Reuters

To make it easier for airlines, the government has now introduced a one-off amnesty on airport slot rules that will give carriers a chance to hand back their take-off and landing slots. Usually, if an airline cannot use its airport slots, they get returned to the pool and given to another carrier. Now, for a brief time, if an airline hands in their airline slots for this summer, the government says they will be able to keep those slots for next summer.

Maintaining airport slots was why many airlines operated “Ghost flights” during the pandemic. Slots are valuable enough that it is more cost-effective for an airline to operate empty flights than run the risk of losing their slot. The government’s new initiative means airlines no longer have to worry about losing their slots if they reduce their schedule.

Some airports, like London’s Gatwick, or Amsterdam’s Schiphol, have implemented caps on the number of passengers they will accept this summer. Nigel Milton says he hopes the slot amnesty will reduce flight numbers enough so Heathrow won’t have to do the same.

When I asked Nigel if he was optimistic about what the next few months hold for aviation, he responded:

“I think this will be a challenging summer, and I think there will be congestion, but there is a difference between congestion and chaos.”

Adding “There will be more queues than we would like, and there will be more queues than the passengers would like, but I am confident that the moves happening within the industry by government, by airports, by airlines, and the joint steps we’re all taking will narrow that gap so that it’s a realistic schedule that’s going to be operated this summer.”

What are your thoughts on the airport staffing gap – have you been affected? Let us know in the comments below!

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