Today’s big question

Half-term airport chaos: what’s gone wrong?

Unions and government blame industry bosses for crippling staff shortages

Holidaymakers across the country have reacted angrily to a series of flight cancellations and delays, with lengthy queues forming at some of Britain’s main airports as families try to get away during half-term.

Experts say the problems are expected to get worse before they get better, with more than 10,000 flights scheduled to leave the UK between Thursday and Sunday – the sector’s biggest test since pandemic restrictions were lifted.

Exhaustion and desperation

The Daily Mail reported that a six-year-old girl was left in tears from “exhaustion” after she and her family were stranded on their half-term holiday in Cyprus when TUI cancelled their flights twice. Glenda Powell, 40, from Bristol, shared an image of her daughter, Freya, crying because she was unable to return to the UK.

Paul Collins, 65, said his easyJet flight from Lyons, France to Gatwick was cancelled on Sunday. Passengers were left waiting on the tarmac for two hours after which they were told that the flight would no longer be able to leave due to a shortage of ground staff in London. “It was a shambles,” he said.

Customers on an easyJet flight from Greece to Gatwick on Sunday said it was rerouted to Luton airport at the last minute. The airline told passengers that it could not provide transport to Gatwick, where many had parked, and they were told that their luggage would not be able to be unloaded due to a lack of baggage handlers.

The Daily Mail said “desperate passengers” were left queueing for hours outside terminals on Monday morning and Gatwick airport had “long and snaking” lines of people trying to drop off their bags before their flights.

Staff cuts

The Sun said that staff shortages “lie at the heart of the crisis”. Unions say thousands of airport workers were made redundant during the pandemic and have not been replaced.

Speaking to The Times, a government source also blamed the aviation sector. “The simple fact is that airlines and airports overcut staff during the pandemic, ignoring the fact that the billions of pounds of aid – including furlough – handed out by the government was meant to protect those very jobs,” they said.

The source added that the surge in bookings after the Covid pandemic was “wholly foreseeable” and customers are now facing “huge frustration”.

However, industry figures have pointed to other issues, including IT glitches, operational problems, supply chain issues and runway works. High levels of staff sickness are also believed to be having an impact. The Guardian reported that there was also a “lack of available workers”.

Laws ‘largely ignored’

The first step, said the consumer group Which?, is for the government to act to stop airlines selling flights “they can’t actually provide”.

Rory Boland, the consumer group’s travel editor, called for ministers to order the Civil Aviation Authority to remind airlines that they have a duty to rebook cancelled passengers on other flights as quickly as possible. He said that legal requirements to accommodate passengers were “largely being ignored by many airlines”.

Other experts say that recruitment is key. Although airports have been recruiting new staff, new team members require training and lengthy security vetting before they are allowed to start, which could take months. Also, said The Guardian, some in the industry feel the current travel boom might be a summer bubble and demand for flights could fade this autumn as the cost-of-living crisis and rising energy prices squeeze consumer spending.

Nevertheless, Paul Charles, chief executive of travel consultancy the PC Agency, told MailOnline that travel firms must “get themselves in order”. This “might mean sadly diverting money due to go into investment, or earmarked for new aircraft or into better check-in facilities to instead go towards hiring more staff”.

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