Capacity crunch: Post-pandemic staff shortages threaten aviation recovery

After two years of lockdowns, quarantines, testing and restrictions, the aviation sector should be gearing up for a bumper summer.

There’s only one problem: too few people are working in airports and on airplanes, and it’s proving very difficult to rapidly boost hiring.

The result can be seen at airports across the Continent.

Last weekend, Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam asked airlines to cancel flights or divert them to other airports because of staff shortages. Passengers had to queue for hours and the hub, one of Europe’s biggest, now offers guidance that sounds like it’s taken from a hiking guide: Wear comfortable clothes and shoes, bring a bottle of water, take a spare jacket in case it gets cold.

Schiphol could even cap flight volumes this summer, warned CEO Dick Benschop. 

It isn’t the only hub feeling the squeeze. Brussels Airport has more than 1,000 personnel vacancies, London Heathrow said last month it was trying to hire 12,000 new employees, while Manchester and Dublin have also experienced chaotic scenes in recent weeks.

It’s because passenger traffic has recovered “sharply and suddenly,” execs from airports’ association ACI Europe and ground handling group Airport Services Association said on Friday.

Although overall passenger numbers are still below 2019 levels, traffic has become “much more concentrated over peak periods,” according to ACI Europe Director General Olivier Jankovec and ASA Managing Director Fabio Gamba. Some larger airports are already at or above pre-pandemic traffic levels.

A survey by ACI Europe found that two-thirds of European airports expect flight delays to increase in the summer.

Airports and ground handlers say they came out of the pandemic with “depleted resources,” having shed thousands of staff due to the collapse in air travel. They are trying to hire people but are running into competition from reviving leisure and hospitality industries in a tight labor market. Pay is also an issue.

“The fact that security and ground handling jobs have for many years stood at the lower end of pay scales and also involve working in shifts 7-days a week is a clear handicap in attracting people in the current inflationary environment,” said Jankovec and Gamba.

Airlines are also scrambling to beef up their workforces.

“The recovery is taking place faster than we had anticipated,” said Jennifer Janzen, spokesperson for industry lobby Airlines for Europe. “We are also seeing the consequences of the new, more stringent regulation for background checks on personnel. Although it is a welcome measure, the pace at which member states’ interior ministries are conducting these checks is far too slow.”

The aviation lobbies want governments to speed up the process ahead of the summer travel crunch.

The airport and ground handler lobbies are also pointing the finger at Brussels, blaming the EU’s Ground Handling Directive for liberalizing baggage handling and complaining that the sector got less pandemic aid than airlines.

“If low wages and compromised service quality were already a concern pre-pandemic, they are now coming to the fore — impacting the aviation system,” the two lobbies argued. They also want the directive to be revamped.

Unions blame employers, who they say used the crisis to cut pay and jobs. The industry is “very much reaping what it has sown,” said Oliver Richardson, civil aviation president with the European Transport Workers’ Federation.

“Low wages, combined with poor conditions and unsocial working patterns, has made the industry unattractive and caused a sector-wide recruitment crisis,” he said.

That’s likely to mean that travelers better lace up those comfy shoes and fill up their water bottles before heading off to the airport.

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