The recovery of demand in the European airline industry coupled with staff shortages threaten the smooth running of operations this summer 2022. Airports Council International Europe (ACI Europe) has warned of the problems that European airports will face, affecting workers and passengers.
The relaxation of travel restrictions in practically all European countries has “abruptly and suddenly” accelerated the recovery of passenger traffic. The scenes of chaos experienced at several British airports during the past Easter break, as well as the warnings coming from the tourism sector in the Netherlands, foreshadow a summer with serious problems in managing the large flow of passengers that will come to the airports.
Coping with this sudden increase and concentration of air traffic has been challenging for airports and their operational partners, in particular ground handlers.Olivier Jankovec, director general of ACI Europe
ACI Europe notes that although traffic is still below pre-pandemic (2019) levels, it has become much more concentrated at “peak periods”, something that represents a “challenge” for airports and their operational partners, such as ground handling services.
This situation has resulted in an increase in flight delays and cancellations, as well as long delays in key airport processes such as check-in, security screening and baggage handling. According to ACI Europe it is mainly being caused by:
- Airports and ground handlers coming out of the Covid-19 crisis with depleted resources, as they have been forced to lay off staff in those areas due to the collapse in air traffic in 2020 and 2021. The fact that airports and ground handlers received far less financial aid than airlines2 and that such aid came rather late was a significant contributing factor to their weakened operational capabilities.
- An extremely tight labor market across Europe. The fact that security and ground handling jobs have for many years stood at the lower end of pay scales and also involve working in shifts 7-days a week is a clear handicap in attracting people in the current inflationary environment.
In the wake of European states easing travel restrictions in March, the recovery of passenger traffic has accelerated sharply and suddenly.Olivier Jankovec, director general of ACI Europe
ACI Europe believes that years of liberalization triggered by the EU Ground Handling Directive have resulted in a downward spiral that has now become both socially and operationally unsustainable. If low wages and compromised service quality were already a concern pre-pandemic, they are now coming to the fore, impacting the aviation system. Training and security clearance requirements that make it impossible to quickly adapt and deploy additional staff – as they result in lead times of up to 16 weeks between staff recruitment and actual deployment.
On the other hand, aviation union Unite’s national sees the situation unfolding a little different. “Not only has the existing economic model been incapable of delivering decent and sustainable jobs, but this has been compounded by the behavior of some employers who during the pandemic opportunistically slashed jobs and cut pay and conditions,” said Oliver Richardson, officer from aviation union Unite.
The industry is very much reaping what it has sown.Oliver Richardson, officer from aviation union Unite
Most airports, and in particular larger ones and hubs where operations are more complex, expect that the quality of the passenger experience will be unavoidably affected by this staffing crunch this summer. An ACI Europe survey reveals that amongst Europe’s airports:
- 66% expect flight delays to increase
- 16% expect flight cancellations to increase
- 15% expect flight schedules to be adapted
- 35% expect the airport and ground handling staff crunch to affect their operations beyond the summer season
One measure the Aviation industry leaders are asking carriers to adapt their schedules to reduce traffic peaks and return unused slots as early as possible. Notifying airports at least three weeks before scheduled flights will help managers to maintain appropriate staffing levels. They are also asking for a swifter security clearance for staff.