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Numbers are still not adding up for chaotic airports - how did we get here?

It is an exercise in balancing numbers – and when it goes wrong it all adds up to chaos on a global scale.

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Photos taken by a passenger flying from Birmingham Airport to Edinburgh, Matthew Broome, show huge queues in May. Photo: Matthew Broome/BPM

When air travel returned after the restrictions of Covid-19, airports were caught out.

They had shed staff when most passenger flights had been grounded by the pandemic. And staffing back up has proved to be a slow and difficult process.

The shortage of staff has brought chaotic scenes to airports across the UK, with flights cancelled, long waits for baggage and queues of more than three hours simply to check in.

It is not just a UK problem. The US government estimates that 100,000 jobs in the aerospace industry have been lost since March 2020, when international borders were closed, despite it handing more than $50 billion of support to airlines. Research by Oxford Economics has found that globally, £700 billion was lost in revenue, forcing drastic job cuts and government-orchestrated bailouts for some carriers across the globe.

Airport managers say they are struggling to fill jobs fast enough. The time needed to get security badges for newly hired staff has risen from three to four weeks in Britain, for example, to as long as three months, according to Willie Walsh, the British Airways former boss who heads the International Air Transport Association.

“The problem is, you can’t start the training until you’ve got the security clearance,” Mr Walsh said. “You offer them a job, they accept it, and then you have to go through this period of three months to get security clearance -- they’re not going to hang around. They’ll go and find a job somewhere else.”

Europe’s air traffic control body has warned of problems stretching into July. Last week Lufthansa announced it would cancel 900 flights in July, blaming “bottlenecks and staff shortages” across the industry.

Airlines have been urged to review their summer timetables to ensure they are “deliverable” so that chaos seen around Easter and the May half term are not repeated. The UK’s Department for Transport and the Civil Aviation Authority stated that earlier cancellations are “better” than axing flights on the day of departure. They this week issued a joint letter to the aviation industry calling on companies to take “all possible steps” to “avoid the unacceptable scenes we have recently witnessed”.

Rannia Leontaridi, director general for aviation at the Department for Transport and CAA boss Richard Moriarty set out five “specific expectations” for the sector in their letter.

They wrote: “We think it’s important that each airline reviews afresh its plans for the remainder of the summer season until the end of September to develop a schedule that is deliverable. Your schedules must be based on the resources you and your contractors expect to have available, and should be resilient for the unplanned and inevitable operational challenges that you will face.

“While cancellations at any time are a regrettable inconvenience to passengers, it is our view that cancellations at the earliest possibility to deliver a more robust schedule are better for consumers than late notice on-the-day cancellations.”

The letter stated that airlines must have “the processes and resources in place to keep consumers informed” about their rights during disruption, such as having “sufficiently staffed call centres and user-friendly digital channels”.

It also proposed that airport chief executives create working groups to bring together airlines, ground handlers, air traffic control and Border Force to “ensure a more coordinated strategic approach”.

Manchester Airport passengers have faced cancellations and delays

The letter comes as Oliver Richardson, national officer for civil aviation at trade union Unite, told MPs that a ranking of airlines based on their number of cancellations “almost exactly corresponds” with how many jobs they cut during the pandemic.

Giving evidence to the Commons’ Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, he said Ryanair, which made no compulsory redundancies, is in a “different position from the likes of British Airways”, which has been forced to cancel more than 100 daily flights in recent weeks due to staff shortages after implementing severe job losses in 2020.

“They did get rid of too many people in a number of instances,” Mr Richardson said.

British Airways corporate affairs director Lisa Tremble refused to acknowledge that the job cuts are contributing to cancellations. She said “it’s very complicated”, stating that the company “had to protect as many jobs as possible”.

EasyJet chief operating officer Sophie Deckers insisted the Luton-based airline – which is also making a large number of cancellations – did plan for the spike in demand for travel but delays in new cabin crew recruits receiving security passes “caught us by surprise”.

She said the process is typically taking around 14 weeks, compared with 10 weeks before the pandemic.

The delay is due to difficulties many individuals are having obtaining reference for all the jobs they have done in the past five years, with the pandemic often creating complicated employment histories.

“In many cases, people have had 10 jobs in the last couple of years,” Ms Deckers said.

“Maybe some of them were only for a couple of weeks, but we’re required to get a reference from each of those, so that’s what’s taking the length of time.

“We have today 142 crew ready and trained to go online that don’t have their ID passes.”

Chaos at Bristol Airport, where passengers had to return duty free goods

Sue Davies, head of consumer rights at consumer group Which?, said the aviation industry and the Government “need to shoulder the responsibility for the chaos that we’ve seen”.

She acknowledged that the sector has been “particularly affected” by the virus crisis, but stressed that consumers have “lost money and suffered huge emotional stress”.

Ms Davies accused airlines of selling tickets when “they don’t know for sure that those flights are actually going to be able to go”.

She added: “There’s just blatant flouting of consumer rights and a failure to put passenger interests first.”

Aviation minister Robert Courts said it has been an “exceptionally difficult time” for aviation firms but it is “the responsibility of the sector” to ensure it employs sufficient staff.

Birmingham Airport

Passengers have been faced with flight cancellations, delayed flights, lost luggage as well as hours of queueing at Birmingham Airport in recent weeks.

Images emerged of long queues trailing from the airport as people waited to check in. And there were reports of passengers arriving at Birmingham but then having to wait several hours to pick up their luggage because of a shortage of handlers to unload arriving planes.

Birmingham Airport says it is being pro-active in attempting to deal with the challenge of recruiting staff following opening up of air travel after Covid.

Jobs being advertised include aviation security workers, Tui team leaders, Jet2 ramp agents and general customer service staff. Various stores and restaurants in the airport are also recruiting, from Costa barristas to The factory Bar bartenders. There are also a range of specialist engineering and technician jobs available.

Spokesman Simon Evans said: “Our recruitment is on schedule as we recover from Covid. We have hired the additional security officers we need. Once they’re trained and vetted, they are being deployed.

“We thank customers who arrive at the airport at the time their airline advises – and for keeping queues moving by removing any liquids, gels, pastes and electrical items from your bags before our security x-ray scanners.”

Existing problems were added to last week by action in Italy, which caused delays of almost 20 hours for travellers flying back from Verona.

At the end of May, passengers were forced to wait hours for their luggage with some being sent home without their belongings. One passenger was forced to wait 12 hours at the airport because of a cancellation and baggage delays.

Manchester Airport

Bosses at Manchester airport have launched a mass recruitment drive to fill 500 vacancies after scenes of airport chaos over half-term.

It was among the worst hit during the last holiday period, with families faced with hours of queues and sudden flight cancellations. Things got so bad on the ground in Manchester that one TUI pilot actually helped load bags onto their plane when there were no ground staff available.

Manchester is now urgently looking to hire 500 staff to plug the gaps. Most of the roles are being advertised as immediate starts, with anyone who signs up being instantly given £250 in cash if they refer a friend. According to the Manchester Airport Group, demand for travel has risen from 37 per cent of pre-Covid demand in January to 80 per cent in April.

Tui announced last month that it would cancel six flights per day at Manchester Airport until the end of June. It apologised, citing “capacity issues”.

Heathrow Airport

Heathrow has insisted its check-in process “generally worked well” in May despite chaos at UK airports during the half-term holidays, after recording its busiest month since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The UK’s biggest airport said that with more air travellers checking in online, 90 per cent of passengers went through security in less than 10 minutes. Heathrow said no more flights were cancelled at short notice than on a typical day and Border Force “performed well” during the month. It said resources remained “tight” but it was working to “match supply and demand” which had made the difference over Easter and the half-term holidays.

Terminal 4, which was closed due to the virus crisis, has now reopened before summer. It will initially be used by 30 airlines. Nearly two million passengers travelled to the EU from Heathrow in May, while 1.4m headed to North America. Flights to the Middle East were also popular.

East Midlands Airport

Former airport staff are set to return to work at East Midlands Airport this summer in a bid to make sure it avoids the scenes of chaos seen at other airports across the country.

East Midlands Airport has managed to avoid major disruption so far – and says it is keen to make sure it stays that way.

It has drafted in a number of retired airport police officers and air traffic controllers to work there again as an extra 5,000 passengers are expected to move through the terminals again this summer.

The people persuaded to come out of retirement are not returning to their old jobs and will work as volunteers patrolling the terminal to answer passengers’ questions and help them where needed.

The network of volunteers, called Friends of EMA, will also be joined by students from the International Air and Space Training Institute in Newark, in a bid to keep queues to a minimum.

Bristol Airport

Bristol Airport has been one of the worst-hit, with cancellations, delays and long waits for baggage.

At one point, would-be holidaymakers had to leave Bristol Airport empty handed after being told to return their duty-free purchases following flight cancellations. People who were told their flight had been scrapped were told they couldn’t take any duty-free purchases with them as it was against regulations.

One of those affected, Aaliyah Miller, had a flight cancelled at the last moment from Bristol to Lisbon. She said: “I was told 10 minutes before boarding that my flight was cancelled. Being asked to return duty-free purchases was certainly salt in the wound. I think the entire room was in disbelief, and a chorus of laughter literally erupted when they made the duty-free announcement.”

The airport recently held a recruitment day last week for 150 vacancies. While there have been less cancellations in recent days, delays to reclaim baggage remain.