Travel is back: is the UK aviation industry ready for the big take-off?

After two years of chaos caused by Covid-19, airports and airlines are now hit by a staffing crisis

British Airways and easyJet aircraft 
(Image credit: Horacio Villalobos/Corbis via Getty Images)

Following the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions, and with Easter and summer holidays on the horizon, British tourists are getting ready to pack their bags for international travel once again.

When the UK government approved the removal of the remaining measures last month, it meant an end to passenger locator forms and testing requirements for returning citizens and arrivals. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the changes would mean “greater freedom for travellers” ahead of the Easter break. And the end of Covid rules gives “a much needed boost for the bruised travel industry”, said the i news site.

Consumer confidence in international tourism is “on the up”, said Abta – The Travel Association. According to the association’s research 57% of people have a holiday abroad booked for the next 12 months, up from 44% in October 2021. “These figures are close to levels seen before the pandemic, and it’s clear that confidence to travel is on the rise as restrictions ease.”

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Are UK airports ready?

Easter bookings are “almost back to pre-pandemic levels”, Travel Weekly reported. According to data from the Advantage Travel Partnership, departures for the period are down by only 10% compared to Easter 2019 and Spain and Turkey “remain firm favourites among travellers”.

With travel back on the agenda and tourists flocking to airports once again, one big question remains. “Are UK airports actually ready?” asked Matt Blake on The Points Guy. Airlines are “enjoying levels of interest they could only have dreamt of a year ago”, but airports are “struggling to cope with this increase in demand”.

Staff shortages blamed for ‘chaotic scenes’

“Chaotic scenes” have been reported at a number of airports across Britain and Ireland in recent days and some passengers have “even missed flights due to lengthy queues”, Blake added.

The UK’s airports have “been mired in chaos” after staff shortages led to hundreds of cancelled flights and hours-long delays over the weekend, The Independent reported. With 222 flights axed due to staff shortages, easyJet was “one of the worst hit airlines” and a spokesperson said that “as a result of the current high rates of Covid infections across Europe, like all businesses easyJet is experiencing higher than usual levels of employee sickness”. British Airways also cancelled “hundreds of flights” on Saturday and Sunday, with another 90 cancellations so far today.

As the Easter holidays got under way, passengers faced long queues at a number of airports, including Heathrow and Manchester, The Guardian reported. There were “long waits” for check-in at Heathrow, because of Covid checks, high passenger volumes and reported staff shortages.

A spokesperson for Manchester airport apologised to passengers. “As we recover from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, our whole industry is facing staff shortages and recruitment challenges,” the spokesperson said. “As a result we are advising customers that security queues may be longer than usual, and we encourage them to arrive at the earliest time recommended by their airline.”

Problems are ‘not terminal’

Airports have blamed a “cross-industry staffing crisis” for the problems, which have been caused by a “lethal combination” of staff illness and post-pandemic recruitment woes, Blake said. “But the issues, they promise, are not terminal.”

The Daily Express said that “Brexit Britain” is once again “heading for the skies” as airlines and airports offer hundreds of new jobs. Luton Airport has advertised more than 400 new jobs across the board, with multiple roles offered in security, firefighting, hospitality and retail staff.

At Heathrow, the UK’s busiest airport, 12,000 staff will be hired to handle an “expected summer holiday boom”, said The Guardian. John Holland-Kaye, the chief executive of Heathrow, said: “We need to ensure we are geared up to meet peak potential demand this summer.”

Aviation expert John Strickland, of JLS Consulting, said the staff shortages coming out of the pandemic is something which is “going to be more widespread” with airlines because of the number of people who were let go.

A British Airways IT glitch last week saw dozens of flights delayed or cancelled at Heathrow and the disruption caused by the repeated IT meltdowns is being exacerbated by staff shortages, The Independent reported. Strickland told the PA news agency that “once the dominoes start to fall, if your manpower is not up to proper planned establishment then you’re really floundering even more”.

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