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Air travel: why it became hell

After two years of health restrictions that brought the sector close to brain death, the summer of 2022 was supposed to be that of the renaissance of air transport. In fact, it looks like a chaos the likes of which summer vacation hasn’t seen in decades. Canceled flights, chronic delays, lost luggage, endless hours of waiting at check-in, baggage drop-off and security checks: passengers are on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Tensions (even ruptures) are present throughout the system and each of the problems encountered by airlines and airports amplifies the others.

The shortage of baggage handlers and security guards is slowing passenger check-in, causing delays. And, with insufficient immigration and customs officers, travelers sometimes have to wait to board their plane (a problem that affected 2,700 flights in Toronto last May), forcing pilots and staff board to work longer days and reduces maintenance time. Worse still, these problems of understaffing and lack of equipment worsen over the weeks.

Armed with public aid and partial unemployment schemes put in place during the pandemic, the airlines hoped to save themselves these galleys; barely grounded by Covid-19, at the start of 2020, they had begun to prepare for a return to normal.

In an industry where recruiting is often synonymous with background checks and training, sometimes on simulators, carriers struggle to find staff quickly

This year, with the approach of the holidays, in need of turnover, they have greatly increased their capacities, but some of the measures taken to reduce the airfoil in 2020 are hampering the restart. In an industry where recruiting often means background checks and training, sometimes on simulators, carriers struggle to find staff quickly.

To fight against the scourge of delays, some airports have limited the number of passengers and flights and some companies have lowered their ambitions, but holidaymakers have not decided to fly less.

“We have done our best to try to capture the largest possible share of potential revenue,” explains Ed Bastian, general manager of Delta Air Lines. We were caught off guard and I don’t think we’re the only ones. »

Since then, Delta has reduced the number of flights it offers, allowing it to normalize operations plagued by delays and cancellations in May and June, but these measures come at a cost. Officials say Delta does not plan to offer more flights this year, although demand remains strong.

In fact, in the United States, air traffic is doing quite well this year, even if it remains below the pre-health crisis level. Restrictions on travelers arriving from overseas have been lifted and, although the bulk of flights are on time, there are far more disruptions than in the past two years, but also compared to the period before the pandemic.

Between June 1 and July 12, 52.9% of flights departing from Toronto’s Pearson airport took off late, according to FlightAware, the highest rate of airports with 1,000 or more flights. By way of comparison, delays affected 46.4% of flights departing from Frankfurt, 42.8% of flights departing from Paris-Charles de Gaulle and 40.2% of flights departing from London’s Heathrow airport.

When all is well, the world of air travel is like a carefully orchestrated ballet

Still according to FlightAware, with the exception of China where the zero Covid policy complicates life for airlines, it was Newark airport that posted the most cancellations between June 1 and July 12: 7.8% departures, compared to 4.5% in the same period in 2019. At New York’s LaGuardia airport, 7.2% of flights were canceled, a figure also higher than in 2019.

When all is well, the world of air travel is like a carefully orchestrated ballet, in which passengers and baggage arrive at the airport, flow smoothly to planes, take a spin in the clouds, and continue their journey.

Normally there are enough staff to prevent disturbances from hampering the whole system. But recruitment being as complicated in airports as in airlines, the room for maneuver has disappeared.

“Everyone wonders where [les salariés] may well have passed, said Tim Clark, president of Emirates Airline, last month. Hundreds of millions of people have disappeared from the labor market. »

Among the points which pose problems are in particular the lack of baggage handlers, the duration of training for new pilots or those returning to work, the countless absences due to Covid-19 and the shortage of air traffic controllers.

London’s Heathrow airport was particularly hard hit by labor issues; last week, it ended up following in the footsteps of Gatwick, the airport in the south of the British capital, and Schipol, that of Amsterdam, and reduced its activity. Before the health crisis, Heathrow was the second international airport in terms of traffic after Dubai; until September 11, it will limit the number of departing passengers to 100,000 per day, 4,000 less than planned.

Its spokesman said attendance was hovering around 80% to 85% of its pre-pandemic level, but the teams tasked with working with the airlines were operating at only 70% of the workforce. The latter, which take care of baggage handlers and ground staff, also have problems with a shortage of manpower, the airport said.

Swissport International, a specialist in air services and baggage handling, currently offers some 17,000 positions, going so far as to offer a hiring bonus of $5,000 at certain American airports. As of June 30, its competitor Menzies Aviation was still short of 1,800 employees.

These jobs, which are often synonymous with working seven days a week or at night, generate fewer vocations than vacancies in other sectors. Potential candidates are also put off by the severe cuts that have taken place over the past two years and the fallout that an economic slowdown could have on the airline industry, said Philipp Joeinig, the managing director of Menzies.

“We see that people are asking the question,” he explains. Let them wonder what will happen after the summer, what will happen if there is a recession, if they will still have a job. »

According to him, what also (and above all) slows down hiring is the essential background check at airports: the process takes 60 days on average, and up to three months in some countries.

On July 11, Delta flew an Airbus A330 between Heathrow and Detroit: no passengers, but a thousand lost bags

Particularly glaring, the shortage of baggage handlers causes a general mess in suitcases, regularly lost or sent to the wrong place. On July 11, Delta flew an Airbus A330 between Heathrow and Detroit: no passengers, but a thousand pieces of lost luggage.

For its part, Icelandair has sometimes dispatched its baggage handlers to Amsterdam because there were not enough personnel on Dutch land. A customer relations officer from the Icelandic company mandated in the Dutch capital to sort the luggage ended up chartering a plane better equipped with cargo space to transport the lost suitcases to Iceland, says Sylvía Kristín Ólafsdóttir, director of customer relations. .

“We have to find creative solutions,” she sums up soberly.

There is little data on lost luggage, but SITA, a Swiss company that runs suitcase tracking software used by airlines, says travelers reported three times as many problems between January and March this year than during the same period in 2021. Between April and June, complaints were five times higher than a year earlier, again according to SITA.

Due to mechanical problems, luggage has recently piled up at Toronto airport, and in June a conveyor belt failure forced Heathrow’s airport to store thousands of suitcases that could not be brought to to their owner. The volume was such that hundreds of them ended up in a hall next to the terminal, whose storage capacities were saturated.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, many airlines encouraged their pilots to retire. But since January 1, it’s just the opposite: they are recruiting as they have never done in their history, according to FAPA.aero, a consulting firm specializing in the career of airline pilots.

When they join a new company, the pilots must be trained… except that there are so many of them that you have to wait a long time for a place in a simulator or training. At Delta, about 1,600 pilots were in training last month, representing 10% of the workforce, according to Ed Bastian.

Same thing at Lufthansa, where hundreds of pilots have yet to be introduced to the specifics of the German company’s aircraft, where more than a thousand air hostesses and stewards are waiting for their application to be validated, according to managing director Carsten Spohr.

Sun Country, a Minneapolis low-cost carrier, hadn’t cut its workforce much during the health crisis because cargo is a big part of its business. But since the beginning of the year, its pilots have been poached by large companies in need of arms.

Sun Country must therefore train replacements, which has lengthened the time between recruitment and the first flight, from 75 days to 115, says its general manager Jude Bricker. “There are just too many people to manage,” he sums up.

He explains that, until now, it was quite easy for an airline to know how many pilots it would need, so to recruit and train accordingly. “Today, it’s much more complicated,” he sighs.

Illnesses and absences linked to Covid-19 only amplify the problem. Eurowings, a low-cost subsidiary of Lufthansa, was forced to cancel a flight departing from Heathrow on July 5: a crew member was ill and the company had no replacement available, all those it has already mobilized on other emergencies.

In Melbourne, Australia, about 8% of flights have been canceled since early June, according to preliminary data; for the most part, connections with Sydney. “The rebound of the past four months is incredible and many people ask us why we were not prepared for it, says Jim Parashos, air manager at Melbourne airport. And we explain to them that we have had six or seven false starts in the past two years, between the pandemic and the variants. »

In the United States and Europe, some airlines are also complaining about shortages of air traffic controllers, explaining that they lead to delays that clog airports. In the spring, believing that air traffic control problems had amplified the disruption caused by a storm, they approached the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the policeman of American civil aviation.

“There are more flights than air traffic control can manage with its current staff,” said Jon Roitman, head of United Airlines, in a letter sent to employees in early July.

The FAA said several factors played a role, including airline staffing levels, and that the majority of delays and cancellations were unrelated to air traffic controllers.

Alaska Air has reduced its summer capacity somewhat compared to what it planned at the start of the year. “You have to be much, much more careful when planning flights and checking that the teams are made correctly, because there are a lot of factors to take into account at the moment”, explains Ben Minicucci, its general manager.

Translated from the original English version by Marion Issard.

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