Union sources said that the Minister of Aviation warned at the beginning of the year that the widespread aviation chaos witnessed last week was “inevitable” and that government intervention was urgently required to prevent such disruption.
During a phone call with airline unions in late January, Robert Curtis was told that the industry would not be able to handle high demand unless it received help to make up for a chronic staff shortage.
Those expectations were executed in comic scenes at times last week, with hundreds of flights canceled during one of the busiest weeks of the year along with day-long delays and huge queues running out of terminals.
Sources familiar with the call with the courts say that despite concerns raised about a serious staff shortage after airlines, airports and ground handling companies laid off tens of thousands of employees in 2020 due to the Covid pandemic, the government has not offered a solution.
The Minister was immediately warned that this was inevitable. “They have to bear some responsibility,” said a union source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In turn, last week Transport Secretary Grant Shapps directly blamed some of the worst-hit airlines, warning that pressure on the industry “does not justify poor planning and overbooking of flights they cannot serve”.
With the Mid-Term and Jubilee holidays drawing to a close, there were signs yesterday that the worst of the turmoil was beginning to abate.
At Stansted Airport in Essex – a hub for EasyJet and TUI Airways, which together canceled dozens of flights last week, some at short notice – staff said the situation had returned to normal. However, passengers who landed there Saturday morning still describe the shock of the sheer number of people willing to fly the plane.
Sisters Margaret Mullarkey and Carmel Corbett said they had never seen Dublin Airport in such a mess before boarding a Ryanair flight to England. “It was absolutely insane. Thousands of people everywhere. They were lining up outside, in the parking lot,” Molarkey said.
Corbett believes that both airlines and the government appear to have been shocked by how suddenly demand for aviation has rebounded after the shutdowns ended.
“They have such an obvious understaffing and they obviously didn’t expect it to go back to previous levels. They must have thought Covid would deter most people from traveling again.”
Mularkey also believes that relatively low wages and employee conditions played a role. “Minimum wages are a huge problem in Ireland,” she said. “No wonder people left the airline industry and never came back.”
Behind them was Brian O’Farrell, who said the security commute at Dublin Airport took three times longer than usual.
“She was very busy,” he said. “It was really very crowded. I am glad I decided to only bring a handbag but it took me an hour to get through security instead of the usual 20 minutes.”
Near a yellow-and-blue kiosk that greets the 100 or so Ukrainian refugees who arrive in Stansted each day, Andy Mitson admitted he was relieved that they managed to avoid getting caught up in the chaos. “The disruption doesn’t seem to have been a huge problem for the Ukrainians, but to be fair, they have bigger issues to think about,” said Metson, who volunteers at CVSU, an Essex-based community charity in Outlesford.
Meanwhile, hostilities between the government and the airline industry are likely to deepen this week as airlines continue to pressure the government to relax post-Brexit immigration rules and grant EU aviation workers special visas to ease the disruption. However, it seems unlikely that the government will change its stance, leaving airlines short of staff as the summer holiday season approaches.
The airline industry says it is struggling to rehire staff quickly enough to deal with the matter, in large part because potential employees need to pass security background checks before starting work.
British Airways, for example, has lost about 10,000 employees during the pandemic and has rehired more than 2,000 since then, with thousands more said to be awaiting security clearance.
The unions argue that the scale of job losses highlights a lack of government support during the pandemic, a problem that has since been exacerbated by airlines slashing their search for savings.
Travel problems this week could extend to rail as passengers were warned they could also face disruption after a strike by conductors at a rail company. Members of the Rail, Marine and Transportation (RMT) union pulled out of the TransPennine Express on Saturday and were set to strike again Sunday in a drawn-out wage dispute.
TransPennine Express (TPE) has urged people not to travel, announcing that limited service is available to those taking essential trips.
Travel chaos is also hidden for Londoners, tourists and workers, as 4,000 underground staff members are set to go on strike after the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations end at the weekend.
Many tube stations, especially those in central London, are expected to close completely.
The Ministry of Transportation has been contacted for comment.