European airline giant Lufthansa has warned of further disruption ahead, warning the situation will not improve any time soon as carriers and airports struggle to rebuild operations from the pandemic slump.
In a letter sent to customers, Europe’s biggest airline group laid out the causes of the chaos, from a lack of staff on the ground, to the war in Ukraine. The carrier said global aviation is reaching the limits of available resources, frustrating airline efforts to recover losses after the coronavirus burst a decades-long boom in travel.
“We can only apologise to you for this,” Lufthansa said in the statement. “In the coming weeks, as passenger numbers continue to rise, be it for leisure or business travel, the situation is unlikely to improve in the short term.”
Lufthansa cancelled a total of 3,100 flights after a wave of coronavirus infections worsened staffing shortages, adding to Europe’s travel chaos as the crucial summer vacation period gets under way. Tens of thousands of aviation sector employees were made redundant during pandemic, and now airlines and ground operations at airports are struggling to meet resurging travel demand. Lufthansa said the industry’s racing to rehire thousands of employees, though the push will smoothen out operations by the northern hemisphere winter.
UK airlines, like other airlines in large markets such as the US, are also very short of staff. British Airways, which removed over 13,000 employees from its workforce once Covid hit, is now facing a period of immense disruption due to its staff shortages, and the airline is desperately trying to introduce new recruits or assist those who were made previously redundant back into the workplace.
Back in 2020, faced with the uncertainty of a new pandemic, airlines were quick to fire tens of thousands of skilled employees. While air travel globally has been tipped to return to pre-pandemic levels in 2023, it’s consistently been a ‘safe bet’ that markets such as Europe, and the US, would return to the skies much, much faster — especially following the initial vaccine rollout.
Also in Europe, a wave of airline strikes, and flight cancellations is deepening Europe’s transport crisis, disrupting travel plans just as the region’s peak summer season gets under way. British Airways check-in staff based at London Heathrow airport have voted for industrial action, with dates to be set shortly. Meanwhile, ADP, operator of Paris’s Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports, is locked in talks with unions in a bid to avert a second strike on July 1 over wages. The one on June 9 led to the scrapping of 25% of all flights at Paris Charle de Gaulle, and the closure of two runways.
In the UK, London Heathrow has been told to cut passenger charges for airlines each year until 2026 by the Civil Aviation Authority. The regulator said the reduction in charges reflected the recent rebound in passenger numbers, but would still allow the airport to invest. But Heathrow, which wanted the charges raised, said the move would undermine the delivery of key improvements.
The charges are paid by airlines but can then be passed onto passengers via airfares.
The fees go towards operating terminals, runways, baggage systems and security.
Now, the average charge per passenger at Heathrow is £30.19, and the CAA has said this will fall to £26.31 by 2026. However, Heathrow wanted to increase it to £41.95.
The CAA said the reduction in the charge "reflects expected increases in passenger numbers as the recovery from the pandemic continues and the higher level of the price cap in 2022, which was put in place in 2021 to reflect the challenges from the pandemic at the time".
In December 2021, Heathrow was given permission to raise the passenger charge from £19.60 to £30.19 for this summer.
Richard Moriarty, chief executive of the CAA, said the cut in charges was "about doing the right thing for consumers".
"Our independent and impartial analysis balances affordable charges for consumers, while allowing Heathrow to make the investment needed for the future."
However, Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye said the regulator "continues to underestimate what it takes to deliver a good passenger service, both in terms of the level of investment and operating costs required and the fair incentive needed for private investors to finance it".
"Uncorrected, these elements of the CAA's proposal will only result in passengers getting a worse experience at Heathrow as investment in service dries up," he said.
Shai Weiss, the chief executive of Virgin Atlantic, said the regulator "can and must go further to lower the cap" from its proposals, especially as consumers face cost of living pressures.
The chief executive of British Airways owner IAG, Luis Gallego, said: "In 2022 airport charges at Heathrow will still be three times more expensive than its EU rivals and 56% higher than last year."
Industry body Airlines UK said the Heathrow charges were "still too high", adding that it was "the most expensive airport in the world”. “The CAA can and should go further to bring it into line with other European hubs," it added.
The International Air Transport Association called for Heathrow charges to drop "now", saying the rise announced in December 2021 was "based on false assumptions that are already being proven wrong by the strong post-pandemic demand for travel".
Willie Walsh, IATA director general, said: "The CAA must stop rewarding this monopoly whose insatiable desire to gouge its customers will damage the competitiveness of 'Global Britain'.
* The author is an aviation analyst. Twitter handle: @AlexInAir