Blame Game Begins As Chaos Reigns At Airports in UK (and Other Parts of Europe)

Neither airports nor airlines in the UK have restored enough capacity into their operations to handle the predictable surge in passenger numbers as the skies reopen.

Flight TOM2106, operated by the UK’s largest tour operator, TUI UK, was scheduled to leave Manchester airport for the Spanish island of Tenerife in the early evening of May 30. The passengers boarded the plane but the plane never left the ground. Due to staff shortages, the ground crew were unable to load the luggage, resulting in the flight being axed.

Footage filmed by one of the passengers shows the pilot telling exasperated customers, three hours after they had boarded the flight: “Swissport (the outsourcing firm that runs cargo handling services for TUI) have abandoned us.” According to passengers, there was not even any staff to let them off the plane and the pilot ended up having to call the police to help them disembark.

TUI is a subsidiary of Europe’s largest tour operator, TUI, which has received multiple bailouts from the German government as well as €4.7 billion of loans to help weather the virus crisis. This week it cancelled hundreds of flights to or from UK airports, scuppering the travel or holiday plans of tens of thousands of Brits.

Who Needs Bags for Holidays Anyway?

This is the busiest weekend of the year so far for UK airports and the chaos is expected to worsen in the coming days. Things have gotten so bad that passengers are now being urged to take just one carry-on bag to help airlines cut down the time spent checking people in.

“It is one less thing to worry about,” said Andy Prendergast, national secretary of GMB union. “If people can check in online and do not take bags, that limits the disruption. It’s not a magic bullet but it does reduce the chance of there being problems.”

Following the UK government’s removal of all travel restrictions in March many Brits are looking to venture abroad for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began. And most are choosing to fly. The UK’s largest airport, Heathrow, has estimated that demand for flights over the summer holidays could reach as high as 85% of pre-pandemic levels. Spain, one of the UK’s most popular destinations, received 6.1 million foreign tourists in April, 10 times more than the same month of 2021 and just a million fewer than in April 2019.

In other words, mass tourism is back with a vengeance, though it is not clear for how long. The problem is that neither airports nor airlines have built enough capacity into their operations to handle the wholly predictable surge in passenger numbers. The result has been chaos at UK airports, with hundreds of flights cancelled and long delays for those lucky enough to fly. The chaos is expected to get worse over this long Jubilee weekend, with as many as two million people expected to (or at least hoping to) fly.

German-based TUI apologized for the disruption, blaming the cancellation of what it described as a “small number” of flights — nearly 200 — from Manchester Airport between now and June 30 on “ongoing challenges.” Those challenges include an acute lack of personnel. Like easyjet and British Airways, which have also cancelled hundreds of flights in recent days, TUI is massively understaffed.

The workers’ union Unite estimated in March 2021 that around 45,000 jobs in the UK’s aviation industry were shed during the first year of Covid-19 restrictions. To compound matters, the UK government began phasing out its furlough support before the travel recovery took hold, leaving airlines and airport groups with the stark choice of resuming paying the full salaries of the employees or just laying them off. Many of them opted for the latter.

Since the skies have reopened airlines have struggled to recruit enough new workers to fill the gaps. Drawn out employee security checks, which can take as long as three months, are not helping matters. Both the airlines and airports have turned to outsourcing firms to tackle the shortages, with predictably dire results.

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