Analysis: Summer of discontent in Europe reveals the labor crisis in the travel sector

AMSTERDAM/PARIS/DOHA, June 19 (Reuters) – After 21 years working as a service agent at Air France (AIRF.PA), Karim Jeval quit his job during the COVID-19 pandemic to start his own job training consultancy.

“If that doesn’t work, I won’t go back to the aviation sector,” the 41-year-old says frankly. “Some shifts started at 4 am and others ended at midnight. It can be exhausting.”

Geval offers a glimpse into the situations faced by airports and airlines across Europe as they race to hire thousands to deal with surging demand, dubbed “revenge travel” as people seek to make up for vacations lost during the pandemic.

Register now to get free unlimited access to Reuters.com

Airports in Germany, France, Spain and the Netherlands have tried to offer perks including pay increases and bonuses to workers who refer a friend.

Leading operators have already flagged thousands of slots across Europe. Read more But the industry says European aviation as a whole has lost 600,000 jobs since the start of the pandemic.

However, the hiring drive cannot come fast enough to erase the risks of flight cancellations and long waits for travelers even after the height of summer, say analysts and industry officials.

The summer when air travel was supposed to return to normal after two years of pandemic vacuum is in danger of becoming the summer when the model for low-cost, high-volume air travel has disrupted – at least in Europe’s sprawling integrated market.

Labor shortages and strikes have already caused turmoil in London, Amsterdam, Paris, Rome and Frankfurt this spring.

Airlines, such as low-cost giant EasyJet (EZJ.L), have canceled hundreds of summer flights and there are fresh strikes in Belgium, Spain, France and Scandinavia.

As industry leaders head to a summit in Qatar this week, the main topic will be who is to blame for the chaos between airlines, airports and governments.

“There’s a lot of mud tossing around, but every side is wrong about not dealing with renewed demand,” said James Halstead, managing partner at the strategic advisory airline.

The airline industry says it has lost 2.3 million jobs globally during the pandemic, with ground handling and security hardest hit, according to Air Transport Action Group, which represents the industry.

Many workers are slow to return, tempted by the “temporary jobs” economy or choosing to retire early.

“Obviously they have alternatives now and they can switch jobs,” said Rico Lohmann, chief economist at ING.

While he expects the travel pressure to ease after the summer, he says the shortage may continue as older workers stay away and, more importantly, fewer younger workers are willing to replace them.

“Even in a recession, the job market will remain tight at least this year,” he said.

low fan

A major factor slowing hiring is the time it takes new workers to obtain security clearance, in France up to five months for the most sensitive jobs, according to the CFDT union.

Marieville, 56, works as a security operator who checks luggage at CDG for about €2,100 ($2,200) per month after tax.

She says the shortage has overworked staff. Stranded passengers turned aggressive. Morale is low.

“We have guys coming and going again by the day,” she says. “They tell us we get paid to the cashier for a job that involves a great deal of responsibility.”

Anne Rigel, chief executive of the French arm of Air France-KLM (AIRF.PA), said that after much turmoil in May, the situation in France is stabilizing.

However, Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports in Paris, where a union called a strike on July 2, still needed to fill a total of 4,000 vacancies, according to the operator.

And in the Netherlands, where unemployment is much lower at 3.3%, job vacancies are at record levels, and KLM’s Schiphol Center has seen hundreds of canceled flights and long waiting lists.

Schiphol is now offering a summer bonus of €5.25 an hour to 15,000 workers in security, baggage handling, transport and cleaning – a 50% increase for those earning the minimum wage.

“This is huge, of course, but it’s still not enough,” said Joost van Doesburg of FNV.

“Let’s be honest, the past six weeks haven’t really been an advertisement for coming to work at the airport.”

Schiphol and Gatwick in London last week revealed plans to limit capacity over the summer, leading to more cancellations as airlines, airports and politicians wrangle over the crisis.

The Blame Game

Airports Worldwide Association President Luis Felipe de Oliveira told Reuters that airports were being unfairly blamed and airlines had to work harder to tackle waiting lists and rising costs.

Willie Walsh, president of the International Air Transport Association, a global aviation industry group meeting in Qatar, dismissed talk of the collapse of air travel as “hysteria”.

Walsh, in turn, blames part of the turmoil on the actions of “stupid politicians” in places like Britain where frequent changes to COVID policy have discouraged hiring.

The meeting of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) to be held from June 19-21 is expected to indicate relative optimism about growth that was tempered by concerns about inflation.

Such gatherings for years have portrayed the industry as the positive face of globalization, connecting people and goods at ever more competitive prices.

But the European labor crisis has exposed its vulnerability to a fragile workforce, and the resulting rise in costs is likely to drive up prices and increase pressure for restructuring.

In Germany, for example, employers say many land workers have joined online retailers such as Amazon (AMZN.O).

“It is more convenient to pack a hair dryer or a computer in a box than to carry a 50-pound suitcase crawling into an aircraft fuselage,” said Thomas Richter, president of the German employers’ association ABL Ground Handling.

Labor pressures may raise costs beyond the summer, analysts say, but it’s too early to tell if the industry should pull back from a pre-pandemic model for ever-increasing volumes and cost cuts, creating new routes and keeping prices low.

But for some departing employees, Europe’s hot summer is signaling a wake-up call for travelers and bosses alike.

“Personally, I think the flight is very cheap…I don’t know how they can really keep up,” said a former British Airways cabin crew member, 58, who has laid off work.

Register now to get free unlimited access to Reuters.com

(Reporting by Toby Sterling, Caroline Baileys, Farouk Soliman, Tim Hever; Additional reporting by Alison Lambert and Klaus Lauer. Writing by Toby Sterling, Tim Hever; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Leave a Comment