Podcast: UK Air Travel: A Perfect Storm Of COVID And Chaos

As demand for air travel returns, why have some airports and airlines in the UK struggled to ramp up operations accordingly? Aviation Week air transport editors discuss how we got here and whether the chaos was inevitable or avoidable.

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Rush Transcript

Karen Walker:

Hello everyone, and thank you for joining us for Window Seat, our Aviation Week Network Air Transport Podcast. I'm Air Transport World and Group Air Transport Editor-in-Chief, Karen Walker. And I'm very happy to welcome you on board. In what you may describe as their best or the worst of timing, I am recording today's podcast from just outside Manchester in the UK, where I'm working this week from our Routes office, and then at the CAPA Airline Leader Summit. And indeed Manchester Airport is making the headlines this week, but not in a good way. A shortage of staff has led to chaos at this airport in Northern England with hours-long queues, missed flights, lost bags, and miserable passengers. On Tuesday, the Head of Manchester Airport, Karen Smart stepped down, but the chaos continues. And while it's undeniably bad, it's not a situation contained only to Manchester. COVID infections and labor shortages have led to problems at London Heathrow and among some of the UK airlines.

Karen Walker:

To talk about this, I am joined by my colleagues, David Casey, the Senior Network Planning Editor at Routes, and Jens Flottau, the Commercial Director at Aviation Week. Welcome both. And it's great to be with you both in person. David, you're based here in Manchester. So just tell us a little bit about what's going on and what you've seen this week or two.

David Casey:

Thanks, Karen. So in the UK at the moment, all the headlines that we're seeing in TVs and newspapers are about the travel chaos, which obviously isn't the start to the summer season that anyone in the industry wanted. We've had two years of pandemic restrictions and the travel industry is desperate for people to fly again. So it's obviously not going to instill confidence. Now, here in Manchester, there's been reports that people have been queuing for several, well, up to seven hours I've heard outside the terminal building just to get through security. And we're also seeing video of bags piled up and just passengers, jostling, just trying to get to the flight.

David Casey:

Why is it happening? Well, COVID cases continue to be really high in the UK. I think in late March, the infection rate was the highest that it's been in England since the outbreak began. And the UK government has removed all travel restrictions for people coming into the UK. So that's obviously created a lot of demand, so that demand is surging. People want to go on holiday and they want to get away. And we've just got the Easter holidays coming up now, so the schools are off. And demand is huge. And obviously as the season progresses as well, I think that's going to get worse.

David Casey:

Now it's clear that some airports in the UK haven't been ready to scale up, they haven't got the staffing levels in place to cope with the influx of passengers. What we've seen is that during the pandemic, a lot of the airports, they had massive redundancy programs. Some of them laid up a third of the staff. Now those are obviously skilled people who have gone into other industries and haven't returned. There's a real labor shortage at the minute and airports just can't get the staff, can't train the staff quick enough to cope with the demand.

Karen Walker:

So what we've really got here is sort of like a perfect travel storm, but unusually, it's not weather that's causing this, but it's that combination of the COVID situation is sort of still here, but the restrictions were lifted. Everybody wants to travel. And then we find that there isn't the staff to cope with it. I'm hearing that they're now, Manchester Airport is looking to get police officers and firefighters in even to try and manage all of this. Jens, you're based in Frankfurt. Are you seeing any similar situations in Europe? Easter holidays are a big vacation time for Europeans too. So what are you seeing there?

Jens Flottau:

So for now, Frankfurt in particular, it doesn't seem to be as bad yet as Manchester, but we see the effects there as well. Eurowings Discover, the leisure carrier that's based at the airport has canceled several European flights yesterday, because about a fifth of their staff is sick, really. So they don't have enough pilots, they don't have enough cabin crew and so on. Omicron still has a massive effect.

Jens Flottau:

The other side of the coin obviously is lack of staff for security, for baggage handlers. And there, the concern is that it's only going to get worse. I would say, I mean, it's top end of the agenda of almost any airline in Europe right now, how are we going to deal with this summer wave that is becoming larger and larger in spite of Ukraine, in spite of Omicron, in spite of everything, really? People really seem to want to travel. In many cases, they've booked travel well in advance. Plans have been set for a long time.

Jens Flottau:

What really strikes me is that, okay, for Easter, demand is probably higher than everyone expected. So the demand on staffing is higher, but for the summer, airlines are already now saying that we will not be able to deal with this. And there I'm really puzzled how the planning could have gone so wrong.

Karen Walker:

I agree. That is the curious bit. As you say, yes, it is difficult to ramp up when you've got a lot of people sick and the exact timing of when travel demand would come back was always difficult, but it's been a long while coming. In other words, there's been a long time to actually be planning.

Jens Flottau:

And don't forget, I mean, it's not like this is the first time ever that the industry has run into a lack of baggage handlers and long lines at security. I mean, if you remember, before corona, the pandemic, this was the top issue, particularly in Europe where the system couldn't deal with the demand for air travel. It was the single most important problem. It's not like people couldn't have known.

Karen Walker:

Correct.

Jens Flottau:

And here we are back again, same problems, same lack of planning.

Karen Walker:

Lack of planning. Yes. So I asked Willie Walsh, the IATA Director General yesterday to comment on this situation. It's interesting because, of course, he was formally the boss at IAG, parent of British Airways. He said he had a lot of sympathy for airlines and airports because they had to furlough a lot of staff during the pandemic. And what he's saying is that it's taking longer than usual to rehire people. But the real thing that he brought up was how much longer it is taking to get security clearances for those people that obviously do need it. He said that when he was at IAG, it was about five to six weeks. He says, it's now taking a lot longer. So there is definitely that aspect to it. But again, crisis planning would take that into account and be liaising with the government organizations that seems to be missing. What do you think, David?

David Casey:

Yeah, I'd have to agree. I think it is a lack of preparedness, but as Willie Walsh said, I think it is understandable. If you look at traffic levels, just as recently as January, they were really low because of the Omicron wave. And it's only really in recent weeks, I think on the 18th of March, the UK removed all restrictions, that demand has really surged.

David Casey:

Now. Yes, you could argue that airports should have known that was going to happen because they could see what airlines were planning, they could see the capacity that was going to come into the system. But then again, we've often seen throughout the pandemic that what airlines have planned to fly and what they've actually flown have been very different. I think if you were sat in a boardroom perhaps at Manchester Airport in December and you were planning for Easter, I think it would take a very optimistic scenario to be where we are now. And unfortunately, well, not unfortunately because travel's returned, but unfortunately for Manchester that they don't have the staff, that we're at that situation now.

Jens Flottau:

To be fair to airports, I mean, I was very critical that one element that we've seen over the pandemic was these extremes, the extreme peaks and the extreme troughs. Airlines have tried to bundle their flights as much as they could, particularly the hubs so that they can get a maximum amount of connections still established. And that was obviously extremely hard for airports because there were times when they didn't have enough people and there were other times during the day where they had way too many people. To manage that was hard. And in fairness you have to mention that, I guess.

David Casey:

I think one thing you have to remember as well is that aviation is a very different industry to a lot of other industries. You can't just get a job on Friday and start on the Monday. There has to be all the background checks, because safety and security of passengers has to be paramount. Those staff need to be background checked, but also there is a training process that they need to go through. It just, isn't going to be an overnight process. So I don't think this is going to be solved anytime soon.

Karen Walker:

I think, again, it's a fair point to make. I still, I think this is woefully inadequate for people that have for years now waited to do this. They're told, at least in the UK, restrictions have gone, ready to fly, and then everything gets messed up for them. And you can understand that.

Karen Walker:

So what I'm just wondering also is, right at the beginning of what these airlines and airports are hoping will finally be a good spring and summer season, how much of an effect will this have on future bookings? It's been all on the headlines here. Will people sort of say, actually, I'm going to wait longer. I don't want to be dealing with that. I actually spoke with somebody in Manchester just as a by the way conversation. And he said, "I was thinking of going abroad. No, I'm going to Wales," which is good for the Welsh tourist industry, but it's not good for the airline industry. What sort of impact do you think this might have, Jens?

Jens Flottau:

Well, a lot of the bookings are in place already, so that's too late from that point of view. But yeah, if you haven't booked yet and this continues to make the headlines, sure. I mean, look back during the pandemic, even if there were flights, I mean, a lot of people didn't fly simply because they weren't sure whether it was actually going to take place, whether you tested positive the last day, this uncertainty is a huge problem for anyone. Everyone knows holidays are a very expensive phase during a year, so you have to be sure that you're actually going to make it.

Karen Walker:

For those people who have finally said, they can go to a convention, go to a work meeting for real, there's a big impact there as well. If you lose the first two or three days of your flight, you've probably lost your work trip, but it's also the impact on international connections. A lot of people going in and out of Manchester will be connecting to one of the major European hubs and you miss that, and then it goes on and on. So that I would imagine will have an impact on the business side, the business traveler, which is what the airlines have really been trying to bring back. What do you think, David?

David Casey:

No, I completely agree. I was listening to an interview actually on the way here and there was someone saying that they were flying back from the States and the airline canceled their first connection, then British Airways flight from Manchester to Chicago had been canceled as well. And I think it is just going to create so much more uncertainty and will potentially put people off for making those long-haul journeys. And maybe, like you say, they will look closer to home to go on vacation.

Jens Flottau:

There's one more element that I'd like to just raise here. It seems like, in terms of technology, in terms of processes, we're simply going back to the good old days, right?

Karen Walker:

Absolutely.

Jens Flottau:

We're doing everything exactly the way we did two years ago. And I don't see this huge effort in the industry to take the rare or sad opportunity of this pandemic to revamp your processes, to look at, how can we introduce new machines? I get it that you can't do everything in two years, but I don't see enough of that thinking of, how can we do things differently? How can we avoid these queues, even if we don't have enough security people? So that's a thing, that's a learning and it's kind of a-

Karen Walker:

I agree. There's almost a real need. There was the crisis organizations and committees that were set up when all this started. There really also needs to be that sort of central thinking of lessons learned and applying different ways of thinking to handling the surge up. But unfortunately, I think a lot of this is just people looking over and saying, oh, we don't want to do what Manchester did. There's no central sort of reservoir, if you like, for that.

Karen Walker:

Jens, David, thank you so much for joining me today and for your insights. And thank you to our listeners. I hope you'll join us next week for our next episode. Make sure you don't miss it by subscribing to the Window Seat Podcast on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. Until then, I hope your next flight will be smooth traveling. This is Karen Walker, disembarking from Window Seat.

 

Karen Walker:

Hello everyone, and thank you for joining us for Window Seat, our Aviation Week Network Air Transport Podcast. I'm Air Transport World and Group Air Transport Editor-in-Chief, Karen Walker. And I'm very happy to welcome you on board. In what you may describe as their best or the worst of timing, I am recording today's podcast from just outside Manchester in the UK, where I'm working this week from our Routes office, and then at the CAPA Airline Leader Summit. And indeed Manchester Airport is making the headlines this week, but not in a good way. A shortage of staff has led to chaos at this airport in Northern England with hours-long queues, missed flights, lost bags, and miserable passengers. On Tuesday, the Head of Manchester Airport, Karen Smart stepped down, but the chaos continues. And while it's undeniably bad, it's not a situation contained only to Manchester. COVID infections and labor shortages have led to problems at London Heathrow and among some of the UK airlines.

Karen Walker:

To talk about this, I am joined by my colleagues, David Casey, the Senior Network Planning Editor at Routes, and Jens Flottau, the Commercial Director at Aviation Week. Welcome both. And it's great to be with you both in person. David, you're based here in Manchester. So just tell us a little bit about what's going on and what you've seen this week or two.

David Casey:

Thanks, Karen. So in the UK at the moment, all the headlines that we're seeing in TVs and newspapers are about the travel chaos, which obviously isn't the start to the summer season that anyone in the industry wanted. We've had two years of pandemic restrictions and the travel industry is desperate for people to fly again. So it's obviously not going to instill confidence. Now, here in Manchester, there's been reports that people have been queuing for several, well, up to seven hours I've heard outside the terminal building just to get through security. And we're also seeing video of bags piled up and just passengers, jostling, just trying to get to the flight.

David Casey:

Why is it happening? Well, COVID cases continue to be really high in the UK. I think in late March, the infection rate was the highest that it's been in England since the outbreak began. And the UK government has removed all travel restrictions for people coming into the UK. So that's obviously created a lot of demand, so that demand is surging. People want to go on holiday and they want to get away. And we've just got the Easter holidays coming up now, so the schools are off. And demand is huge. And obviously as the season progresses as well, I think that's going to get worse.

David Casey:

Now it's clear that some airports in the UK haven't been ready to scale up, they haven't got the staffing levels in place to cope with the influx of passengers. What we've seen is that during the pandemic, a lot of the airports, they had massive redundancy programs. Some of them laid up a third of the staff. Now those are obviously skilled people who have gone into other industries and haven't returned. There's a real labor shortage at the minute and airports just can't get the staff, can't train the staff quick enough to cope with the demand.

Karen Walker:

So what we've really got here is sort of like a perfect travel storm, but unusually, it's not weather that's causing this, but it's that combination of the COVID situation is sort of still here, but the restrictions were lifted. Everybody wants to travel. And then we find that there isn't the staff to cope with it. I'm hearing that they're now, Manchester Airport is looking to get police officers and firefighters in even to try and manage all of this. Jens, you're based in Frankfurt. Are you seeing any similar situations in Europe? Easter holidays are a big vacation time for Europeans too. So what are you seeing there?

Jens Flottau:

So for now, Frankfurt in particular, it doesn't seem to be as bad yet as Manchester, but we see the effects there as well. Eurowings Discover, the leisure carrier that's based at the airport has canceled several European flights yesterday, because about a fifth of their staff is sick, really. So they don't have enough pilots, they don't have enough cabin crew and so on. Omicron still has a massive effect.

Jens Flottau:

The other side of the coin obviously is lack of staff for security, for baggage handlers. And there, the concern is that it's only going to get worse. I would say, I mean, it's top end of the agenda of almost any airline in Europe right now, how are we going to deal with this summer wave that is becoming larger and larger in spite of Ukraine, in spite of Omicron, in spite of everything, really? People really seem to want to travel. In many cases, they've booked travel well in advance. Plans have been set for a long time.

Jens Flottau:

What really strikes me is that, okay, for Easter, demand is probably higher than everyone expected. So the demand on staffing is higher, but for the summer, airlines are already now saying that we will not be able to deal with this. And there I'm really puzzled how the planning could have gone so wrong.

Karen Walker:

I agree. That is the curious bit. As you say, yes, it is difficult to ramp up when you've got a lot of people sick and the exact timing of when travel demand would come back was always difficult, but it's been a long while coming. In other words, there's been a long time to actually be planning.

Jens Flottau:

And don't forget, I mean, it's not like this is the first time ever that the industry has run into a lack of baggage handlers and long lines at security. I mean, if you remember, before corona, the pandemic, this was the top issue, particularly in Europe where the system couldn't deal with the demand for air travel. It was the single most important problem. It's not like people couldn't have known.

Karen Walker:

Correct.

Jens Flottau:

And here we are back again, same problems, same lack of planning.

Karen Walker:

Lack of planning. Yes. So I asked Willie Walsh, the IATA Director General yesterday to comment on this situation. It's interesting because, of course, he was formally the boss at IAG, parent of British Airways. He said he had a lot of sympathy for airlines and airports because they had to furlough a lot of staff during the pandemic. And what he's saying is that it's taking longer than usual to rehire people. But the real thing that he brought up was how much longer it is taking to get security clearances for those people that obviously do need it. He said that when he was at IAG, it was about five to six weeks. He says, it's now taking a lot longer. So there is definitely that aspect to it. But again, crisis planning would take that into account and be liaising with the government organizations that seems to be missing. What do you think, David?

David Casey:

Yeah, I'd have to agree. I think it is a lack of preparedness, but as Willie Walsh said, I think it is understandable. If you look at traffic levels, just as recently as January, they were really low because of the Omicron wave. And it's only really in recent weeks, I think on the 18th of March, the UK removed all restrictions, that demand has really surged.

David Casey:

Now. Yes, you could argue that airports should have known that was going to happen because they could see what airlines were planning, they could see the capacity that was going to come into the system. But then again, we've often seen throughout the pandemic that what airlines have planned to fly and what they've actually flown have been very different. I think if you were sat in a boardroom perhaps at Manchester Airport in December and you were planning for Easter, I think it would take a very optimistic scenario to be where we are now. And unfortunately, well, not unfortunately because travel's returned, but unfortunately for Manchester that they don't have the staff, that we're at that situation now.

Jens Flottau:

To be fair to airports, I mean, I was very critical that one element that we've seen over the pandemic was these extremes, the extreme peaks and the extreme troughs. Airlines have tried to bundle their flights as much as they could, particularly the hubs so that they can get a maximum amount of connections still established. And that was obviously extremely hard for airports because there were times when they didn't have enough people and there were other times during the day where they had way too many people. To manage that was hard. And in fairness you have to mention that, I guess.

David Casey:

I think one thing you have to remember as well is that aviation is a very different industry to a lot of other industries. You can't just get a job on Friday and start on the Monday. There has to be all the background checks, because safety and security of passengers has to be paramount. Those staff need to be background checked, but also there is a training process that they need to go through. It just, isn't going to be an overnight process. So I don't think this is going to be solved anytime soon.

Karen Walker:

I think, again, it's a fair point to make. I still, I think this is woefully inadequate for people that have for years now waited to do this. They're told, at least in the UK, restrictions have gone, ready to fly, and then everything gets messed up for them. And you can understand that.

Karen Walker:

So what I'm just wondering also is, right at the beginning of what these airlines and airports are hoping will finally be a good spring and summer season, how much of an effect will this have on future bookings? It's been all on the headlines here. Will people sort of say, actually, I'm going to wait longer. I don't want to be dealing with that. I actually spoke with somebody in Manchester just as a by the way conversation. And he said, "I was thinking of going abroad. No, I'm going to Wales," which is good for the Welsh tourist industry, but it's not good for the airline industry. What sort of impact do you think this might have, Jens?

Jens Flottau:

Well, a lot of the bookings are in place already, so that's too late from that point of view. But yeah, if you haven't booked yet and this continues to make the headlines, sure. I mean, look back during the pandemic, even if there were flights, I mean, a lot of people didn't fly simply because they weren't sure whether it was actually going to take place, whether you tested positive the last day, this uncertainty is a huge problem for anyone. Everyone knows holidays are a very expensive phase during a year, so you have to be sure that you're actually going to make it.

Karen Walker:

For those people who have finally said, they can go to a convention, go to a work meeting for real, there's a big impact there as well. If you lose the first two or three days of your flight, you've probably lost your work trip, but it's also the impact on international connections. A lot of people going in and out of Manchester will be connecting to one of the major European hubs and you miss that, and then it goes on and on. So that I would imagine will have an impact on the business side, the business traveler, which is what the airlines have really been trying to bring back. What do you think, David?

David Casey:

No, I completely agree. I was listening to an interview actually on the way here and there was someone saying that they were flying back from the States and the airline canceled their first connection, then British Airways flight from Manchester to Chicago had been canceled as well. And I think it is just going to create so much more uncertainty and will potentially put people off for making those long-haul journeys. And maybe, like you say, they will look closer to home to go on vacation.

Jens Flottau:

There's one more element that I'd like to just raise here. It seems like, in terms of technology, in terms of processes, we're simply going back to the good old days, right?

Karen Walker:

Absolutely.

Jens Flottau:

We're doing everything exactly the way we did two years ago. And I don't see this huge effort in the industry to take the rare or sad opportunity of this pandemic to revamp your processes, to look at, how can we introduce new machines? I get it that you can't do everything in two years, but I don't see enough of that thinking of, how can we do things differently? How can we avoid these queues, even if we don't have enough security people? So that's a thing, that's a learning and it's kind of a-

Karen Walker:

I agree. There's almost a real need. There was the crisis organizations and committees that were set up when all this started. There really also needs to be that sort of central thinking of lessons learned and applying different ways of thinking to handling the surge up. But unfortunately, I think a lot of this is just people looking over and saying, oh, we don't want to do what Manchester did. There's no central sort of reservoir, if you like, for that.

Karen Walker:

Jens, David, thank you so much for joining me today and for your insights. And thank you to our listeners. I hope you'll join us next week for our next episode. Make sure you don't miss it by subscribing to the Window Seat Podcast on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. Until then, I hope your next flight will be smooth traveling. This is Karen Walker, disembarking from Window Seat.

Karen Walker

Karen Walker is Air Transport World Editor-in-Chief and Aviation Week Network Group Air Transport Editor-in-Chief. She joined ATW in 2011 and oversees the editorial content and direction of ATW, Routes and Aviation Week Group air transport content.

Jens Flottau

Based in Frankfurt, Germany, Jens is executive editor and leads Aviation Week Network’s global team of journalists covering commercial aviation.

David Casey

David Casey is Editor in Chief for Routes, the global route development community's trusted source for news and information