It’s not a surprise to anyone at this point that flying can be a stressful experience. There’s a growing list of airlines cancelling flights, departures are filled with passengers left with no transportation and phone lines from the main airports have been constricted with hours of customers on hold.
The shortage of staff in airports has hit the world since the COVID-19 restrictions have slowed down. But what seems to be a direct consequence of the pandemic, with Europe being particularly affected, is actually a symptom of many more factors.
Gas prices, workers’ demands, post-pandemic labour shortages, bad weather or simply unexpected travellers’ behaviour have all contributed to the new phenomenon. That is far from close to an end.
The labour shortage
There seems to be a simple explanation for the labour shortage felt all across the aviation sector. The market was particularly hit by the pandemic and losses have been huge for most airlines during the two years of continuous restrictions.
When COVID-19 hit, airlines and airports had to let go of a huge part of their staff. They depended on government bailouts and drastic job cuts to carry on. When the world returned to business as usual, the market was simply left with no people both on ground handling and in the aircrews.
But the truth is that the answer to this problem is not so “black and white” as one might think. Different sets of employees were affected in very different ways during these two years. And if it’s true that job cuts played a huge role in the current crisis, that doesn’t mean it’s the only explanation.
“People aren’t so attracted by some of the jobs we offer, especially in security and ground handling. The wages are no longer attractive enough because working conditions are what they are, people have to work in shifts and on weekends,” said Olivier Jankovec, the head of airports lobby ACI Europe, to Bloomberg.
It’s not exclusive to the aviation sector and it has been happening in a lot of different industries. People are just not willing to accept the conditions and payments offered by companies to perform the same jobs they did in the pre-pandemic world.
Workers found jobs elsewhere and are in no rush to return to the more stressful world of working for an airline. A lot of pilots had advantageous packages to get out of their exclusive contracts. Aircrews were reallocated or simply let go. Now, they seem to have found careers elsewhere.
Companies have been reshaping the way they conduct business, whereas before workers were the ones adapting to the market. Big airlines like easyJet have removed one of the rows in the aeroplane so they can operate flights with fewer members in the crew. Airlines are trying to shorten the time period to hire a new pilot, with fewer training hours and less experience required. But they face a massive setback: workers have changed the way they perceive work.
Career-oriented decisions and higher payment demands made it impossible for airlines to prepare for their already existing problem. And they simply cannot fill their job openings.
“Now you’re seeing that people are not ready to take the job at the salary levels that were offered before so they have to pay more to get the same people,” said Umang Gupta, of Alton Aviation, to Insider.
Strikes across Europe
When COVID-19 restrictions started to go away, airport and airline workers returned to action-filled days. The ones that actually were kept by corporations were faced with the simple fact that working hours were going up rapidly, while payment and conditions remained the same.
European summer has been shaped by the continuous strikes happening across the entire continent that made it simply impossible to establish a sustainable market. It’s been happening not only in the aviation sector, but this one has been hit the most.
Airports are understaffed and workers are demanding improved conditions, while inflation grows at a fast pace and economic pressure is striking the average worker in Europe. So if it’s true that job cuts played a major role in the unstable situation, it is fair to say
that the inflation and prices promoted by the war in Ukraine were the final footsteps to an already boiling dissatisfaction.
In June, a quarter of the flights were cancelled in France’s biggest airport (Paris-Charles de Gaulle) due to workers on strike. Ryanair, one Europe’s biggest low-cost airlines, was forced to request help from the British military to deal with disruptions caused by strikes during the Platinum Jubilee celebrations in the UK. In Germany, the lack of staff got so bad, that airlines are now seeking workers in foreign countries, particularly Turkey. And even in Scandinavia, almost 1.000 pilots plan to walk off their jobs in case no agreement is reached with SAS AB regarding their collective labour agreement.
Chaos seems to have emerged all across Europe and companies will struggle all summer long with a solution to keep workers and passengers happy.
The particular case of the UK
In July it was estimated that more than 3.000 jobs were still open in the UK airports. If it’s true that all of Europe has been dealing with the current crisis, the UK has suffered the most to hire and rebuild teams thanks to an adding factor: Brexit.
Airports and airlines are finding it particularly hard to hire workers with the many restrictions imposed by the country’s absence from the European Union.
Companies can only rely on workers that were already in the country in the pre-Brexit time or are UK citizens. But the many job cuts left citizens sceptical to return to the airline business and hiring is now harder than ever.
“The pool of people is smaller, it’s just math. We have had to turn down a huge number of EU nationals because of Brexit. Pre-pandemic we would have turned down 2-2.5% because of nationality issues. Now it’s 35-40%.” said Johan Lundgren, CEO of easyJet.
The post-lockdown boom
With travel restrictions almost gone after two years of struggle, the travelling market now faces a post-lockdown travel boom.
People were clearly eager to enjoy those holidays put on hold for the last couple of years. Recovery was fast, perhaps even faster than
what the industry anticipated, but some rules of the game have changed.
By the end of the year, it is expected that Europe will have recovered 70% of the pre-pandemic travel demand. But the recovery is not equal in all regions and there are no reliable data to show us just how much staff shortage has delayed the full recovery even more.
People are back to travelling, but their concerns have changed. Safety issues are more relevant than ever, economic pressure has constricted some choices, and gas prices have influenced destinations and spending. It is simply not the same landscape it was in 2019.
The travel industry knew recovery was on the way but was unable to plan ahead. A lot because of the lack of data and staff, much because, like all of us, was surprised by the international climate we find ourselves in.
The new factors influence customers’ behaviour deeply. Price increases have pushed consumers closer to home, while bucket-list trips are again trending. A no-in-between field that is hard to navigate in.
Additionally, destinations closer to Russia have found it a lot harder to recover, with mass hotel booking cancellations occurring in countries like Latvia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic since the beginning of the war in Ukraine.
There was an unexpected shift in consumers’ behaviour that was simply impossible to predict. This made it hard to plan ahead and added even more pressure onto aviation and airport workers, who were already struggling with the shortage in labour.
The way to the future
Like many industries, airlines and airports will now reshape and learn from the crisis they find themselves in. The shortage of staff and overall unhappiness of its workers was not an exclusive phenomenon to the pandemic and was long felt before that.
Long hours, lack of free time and uncompetitive payment must be replaced with overall better conditions, in order to continuously attract workers to the sector.
It’s time to challenge the industry to find new common ground with workers and be an exciting business to be a part of. This can take many shapes, but it is impossible to imagine a world where everything stays as it is. And it’s simple to imagine what needs to be transformed:
As productivity takes on a completely new meaning, new business models and decision-making processes need to emerge to help create a positive culture. It is crucial to create a most favourable working environment to continuously attract new talent. And, with technology taking on an even more meaningful role, jobs need to be redesigned and even adapted to a no-human necessity.
Structures of data and safety need to change for communication to be more effective and faster. It’s clear that a lot of the challenges for the future of travel come from how fast information is transmitted and how quickly companies act on it.
Business strategies must be built from the ground up to answer these questions and focus on:
- Maintain a culture of safety and health
- Invest in digital transformation to decrease some workload
- Revamp the culture in the place of work
- Identify faster ways to attract workers
- Think of better ways to reward productivity
In the current world, aviation as an all needs to abandon old orthodoxies and invest in quicker effective ways to keep workers and customers happy. It is no longer a question of re-using the strategies adopted until now, but defining the new norms for a sustainable future.