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As anyone who has travelled recently, or just seen media reports, will know, airlines and other aviation companies are struggling with staff and recruitment post-COVID. This is not just related to the aviation industry – it is a problem across hospitality, logistics, and other service sectors – but is very apparent in aviation with the delays, cancellations, and passenger frustration that it can lead to. As the busy summer season approaches, companies are trying hard to recruit.


Resumption of travel

Travel has rebounded quickly following almost two years of travel bans, closed borders, and country lockdowns. Opinion differed as to how quickly this would happen, but it seems the optimists were right. People have been keen to move again, to visit friends and family not seen for years, to holiday and to work.

In March 2022, overall passenger numbers were up 76% compared to the year before and just 41% below pre-pandemic levels (according to IATA). In some areas, though, the rise is significantly more pronounced. International travel within Europe, for example, was up over 400% from the year before.

Staffing issues as travel resumed

Staff shortages very quickly became an issue as travel resumed. The peak travel times over Easter were a disaster in many regions, with large numbers of cancelled flights and queues at airports taking several hours. Over one week at Easter, British Airways cancelled an incredible 662 flights (according to Reuters). There were even extreme calls made, such as British Airways’ decision on many flights just to not load baggage at all to ease airport issues (and deal with the aftermath and angry passengers later).

Customer service has been massively impacted, too – with staff shortages compounded by operational problems. In April, customers reported phone waits of three to four hours to contact American Airlines, for example. British Airways has decided to stop selling tickets by phone to prioritise customer disruption and assistance.

It is important to remember that staffing issues are not just affecting airlines. While these often make headlines with the immediate problems they cause, there are, in fact, difficulties across the industry. Airport logistics and ground staffing, baggage handling, customs, immigration, catering, and many other areas are suffering. Staffing issues in any area can be impactful on overall operations. Some of the most significant delays at London Heathrow recently, for example, have been caused by a lack of ramp staff to handle incoming aircraft – leading to many cancellations.

Tough to recruit

Things are clearly bad, but why has it got like this? Partly, airlines did not expect travel to resume so quickly. Even if they did, there remains the challenge that the pandemic has not necessarily gone away. Immediately building up headcount and payroll again sounds great, but what if we get new sets of restrictions. Airlines are rightfully mindful of how quickly restrictions came last time and how extreme they were.

Many factors are making recruitment difficult. Some of the leading ones include:

  • A lack of willingness for staff to return to the industry. Many were treated badly with layoffs and furloughs during the pandemic. Some have found other work; others simply do not want to return to such a turbulent industry.
  • New workers are choosing other sectors. Likewise, the usual stream of recruits is less, as workers consider other sectors more attractive and secure. Longer-term, there are issues too – few students, for example, want to study in areas such as travel and tourism.
  • In the UK, Brexit has caused a significant shift in recruitment options. Many Europeans have left the UK, and it is much harder for UK companies to recruit from Europe.
  • Low pay across the industry. Apart from some areas such as ATC and senior flight crew, the aviation industry is not generally well paid. Many service sector workers are tempted by other options – some booming logistics and warehousing companies, for example, can offer more. Coming out of the pandemic, many companies are not in a position to raise pay or make offers. Just look at the awful situation with P&O Ferries in the UK to see how far companies will go to cut costs.
  • Delays in training, security clearance, and permits. Even when staff are found and recruited, there are delays getting them operational. In many areas – and certainly onboard aircraft – there are strict training and security requirements to be met, which takes time. There are particular issues in 2022 with backlogs to conduct checks and issue security passes at many airports.

Preparing for the summer

Things will get busier as we head into summer. London Heathrow, for example, expects summer travel in 2022 to reach 85% of pre-COVID levels.

The issues that have been seen so far mostly remain, and there is no quick solution. Airlines and other companies have had time to prepare, though, and hopefully are more confident about the continued travel demand. Sadly, there are other issues too. Covid and further variants remain a possibility, fuel prices are rising, and there is ongoing and potentially escalating conflict in Europe.

John Holland-Kaye, the chief executive of London Heathrow, summed up the situation as we head into summer well, saying recently:

“Aviation’s recovery remains overshadowed by war and Covid uncertainty. But we need to ensure we are geared up to meet peak potential demand this summer.”

Airlines, airports, and other companies are making strong plans, but it remains to be seen how successful these will be. Just a few examples show the scale of this: Heathrow plans to recruit 12,000 people by summer and re-open it’s closed Terminal 4; Delta Air Lines has plans underway to get 3,000 more flight attendants in the air by summer; and several authorities are looking at unusual ways to expedite security clearances and processing.

Strong efforts like these look good, but, as already highlighted, there are many different problems to solve. If staffing issues remain in any one area, this could be enough to derail the whole sector.

Final Thoughts

Staff shortages are a problem across the aviation industry – both in the air and on the ground. Many issues have become apparent as we quickly emerged from the pandemic. Few of them are being resolved, though, as we head into busier travel times. Summer 2022 looks set to be very difficult for airports, airlines, and, of course, passengers.

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