Airlines and airports spent the past two years insisting that when people could finally travel again, they would. Except, it seems, they can’t — and the industry itself is to blame.
The great Easter getaway has been beset by reports of chaos. Manchester airport has warned of hour-long waiting times for security for months to come. easyJet and British Airways cancelled roughly a thousand flights to or from the UK between them in the final week of March, according to data from aviation analytics company Cirium. Last week it was another 400. Passengers are understandably angry and make themselves heard.
But the data are not necessarily as straightforward as it seems.
BA has indeed run a far slimmer schedule than it originally intended. Some cancellations, though, will have been planned well in advance: routes to Asia have been slow to reopen after coronavirus border closures and Russia has become a no-go zone. The carrier has pared its timetable further in recent weeks, but that means only another 10-20 flights a day will be out of action from now until May, plus another two to three lost to staff sickness. Disruption should diminish as passengers have more time to adjust.
At easyJet meanwhile no-notice cancellations have eased since the first weekend in April, after which it adjusted flight plans. Roughly 4-5 per cent of its total schedule has been affected in the past week; that figure has fallen in recent days.
That said, there clearly has been above average upheaval. How much of a problem it is for the airlines involved depends in part on whether the causes are temporary and quickly overcome or more seriously structural.
The obvious culprit is staff shortages. These are companies that sacked huge numbers of people during the pandemic. BA shed almost 10,000 staff and tried to push through a fire and rehire plan for those who remained. easyJet ended up cutting roughly 2,000 — less than half the number originally planned but still a hefty chunk of what was a 15,000-strong workforce. And there is no disputing that the UK labour market is now tight.
It makes sense that employers which aggressively axed staff during the depths of the pandemic would struggle to recruit again as the skies have reopened. The only thing is the airlines say they haven’t.
The airports have been upfront about staffing issues, which have caused queues. Manchester said last week that it didn’t have the number of employees it needed to operate at full strength. Heathrow said on Monday that “resources are stretched” as it gears up for the summer season, with 12,000 new starters planned across the airport. But the airlines point to other factors at play.
EasyJet has pinned the cause for cancellations on unprecedented levels of staff sickness, with illness levels of twice the normal amount at 13 per cent. And while it may be the case that businesses have to adjust their payrolls to reflect structurally higher absence rates after Covid, easyJet calculates standby rates based on the experience of the past six months, a period that included the winter Omicron surge. It is possible that the unforeseen absences that prompted last-minute cancellations really were unforeseeable. Still, as easyJet has moved to compete less with the likes of lower-cost Ryanair and Wizz, where ultra-cheap fares excuse some service shortfalls, it will be held to higher standards bearing greater reputational risk when things go wrong.
BA meanwhile says its schedule changes were precautionary, a consequence of an abrupt ramp-up for the industry. That may conceal a multitude of issues. Its cancellations, however, are the latest in a line of let-downs. Customers are becoming accustomed to the possibility they may lose their luggage en route, or the airline’s IT systems may go down. Boss Sean Doyle’s pledge to restore BA’s reputation for premium service will ring hollow as long as those endure.
Summer travel seasons always bring setbacks. But airlines need to recognise that for passengers who haven’t flown for two years or more, the prospect of a miserable short-haul hop may have longer-lasting brand consequences. It does not entirely matter if the reality of the disruption has not been as widespread as reports have made it sound. The reputational damage can be done regardless.