Airlines ask UK to ease visa rules amid growing travel chaos

Airlines have asked the UK to ease post-Brexit immigration rules and grant EU aviation workers special visas to help ease the disruption plaguing the travel industry as flight demand soars.

Airline chief executives told Transport Secretary Grant Shapps at a meeting on Wednesday that they could ease some of their staffing shortages by moving crew to the UK from other European bases, people say. aware of the call.

But Shapps warned the government was unlikely to ease immigration rules to help the industry, which has been rocked by delays and cancellations in one of the busiest weeks of the year. .

The pressure on the industry will intensify this bank holiday with nearly 2million people hoping to fly out after a week that has seen passengers suffer widespread disruption and companies accused of selling more fights than they can handle exploit it.

More than 10,500 flights with around 1.9 million seats are expected to take off from UK airports between Thursday and Sunday, according to data from analytics firm Cirium, as the Jubilee long weekend coincides with school semesters.

The rush follows a disastrous week for the industry as travelers complained of missed flights, day-long delays and queues that snake out of terminals.

EasyJet and Tui have been forced to cancel hundreds of flights – some at short notice – as they struggle to find enough crew and planes to meet their schedules, while airports including Manchester and Bristol have presented their apologies to customers for the delays. Air traffic control problems across Europe added to the chaos.

The disruption has at times bordered on farce: Passengers saw a Tui pilot come to the airstrip to help load bags onto their plane, while other would-be travelers said a Vueling flight had taken off without any passengers following a mix-up.

In total, there were 377 flight cancellations from UK airports between May 25 and May 31, Cirium said, including 151 affected passengers trying to travel from London Gatwick Airport, which has been hit hard by the disruptions. from easyJet.

Airlines “seem to be trying to run schedules that can’t materialize,” said Chris Tarry, an aviation consultant. The industry needed “a date with reality”, he added.

At the heart of the crisis is a staff shortage that reveals a failure or inability to plan for a time that was always expected to be busy, and comes just weeks after the industry was criticized for queues and delays at Easter.

As the chaos escalated over the week, a blame game began when Shapps said tensions over the sector ‘does not excuse poor planning and overbooking of flights they cannot service’ .

“Companies that have experienced the most disruption need to learn from those that have run services smoothly,” he said.

Airlines, airports and ground service providers laid off tens of thousands of employees in 2020 after the pandemic ravaged their businesses, and are no longer able to rehire quickly enough to cope, especially more than many employees have to pass security checks before they can start working.

British Airways lost around 10,000 staff during the pandemic and has since rehired at least 2,000 crew, with “thousands” more awaiting security clearance, the airline said.

Airline bosses nevertheless seized on the return of flight demand and planned extended schedules which proved impossible to meet, with EasyJet promising to fly close to their 2019 schedules and owner BA IAG at 80%, despite a reduced staff.

For unions, the chaos is proof that airline bosses have cut too much in search of cost savings, leaving companies with no flexibility to cope with increased demand.

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Sharon Graham, head of Unite the Union, blamed airlines for “laying off and cutting wages for thousands of workers without hesitation during the pandemic”.

Martin Chalk, head of pilots’ union Balpa, said the industry was “reaping what it had sown” and airlines that worked more closely with their staff during the crisis were now better placed to weather the disruption.

But airline and airport executives were frustrated and angry with the government blaming them for the disruption.

Industry body AirlinesUK said the vast majority of flights were operating as planned and the industry had “only had weeks to recover” after travel restrictions were lifted in March.

Companies have received less financial support than in many other countries, while strict rules that force airlines to use their allocated take-off and landing slots leave them limited flexibility to cancel flights abroad. ‘advance.

Balpa’s Chalk said the government had also ignored specific requests to extend leave for aviation personnel with security clearances. “It’s really rich for them to be singled out now,” he said.

Jet2 boss Steve Heapy said Weekly trip that ministers had a “limited” understanding of the industry.

The aviation industry is a fragile and complex web of businesses that operate on a knife edge at the best of times and are subject to cascading disruption whenever problems arise.

The Easter problems were partly due to understaffing at airports, particularly in security, and executives said those jobs had been amply filled. But the problems have now shifted, especially to check-in and ground operations.

Ministers have introduced temporary changes to help get staff to the front line faster, including allowing training during security checks and allowing the use of tax background letters for reference checks.

But with no quick fix in sight and many businesses still chronically understaffed, airlines expect disruptions to continue until the peak of the summer season, the document says. information of an airline consulted by the FinancialTimes.

Several airlines have responded by cutting their schedules to better reflect their ability to operate flights and to try to avoid last-minute cancellations.

EasyJet announced this week that it would cut 24 flights a day, while Tui canceled 43 flights a week from Manchester.

There are signs that this tactic could work. BA has managed to inject resilience into its operation after cutting its timetable by 10% last month following repeated disruptions.

“You can’t turn on an industry overnight,” said travel industry consultant Paul Charles. “It was always going to be impossible to expect it to restart right away,” he said.

Birmingham passenger abandons Tui after full day at airport

For Richard Guttfield, what should have been a three-and-a-half-hour flight to Greece turned into an all-day ordeal on Sunday, as he became one of tens of thousands of passengers caught in the disruptions affecting the travel industry.

Holiday airline Tui made passengers hoping to fly between Birmingham and Keffalonia wait at the airport gate for around eight hours without any communication, Guttfield said, before texting them to tell them the flight would not operate. not until the next morning.

“We were all guessing what was going on, there was no information from Tui, nothing, not a word,” said the 55-year-old technician. “People tried to contact Tui but got nothing at all”

The passengers were promised hotel rooms but the airline never delivered, Guttfield said, but was quick to offer £500 compensation under UK rules.

Customers on the Kefalonia flight, which finally landed on Monday evening, were offered accommodation and compensation by ground handlers, Tui said.

In total, he estimates he spent 11 hours at the airport on Sunday afternoon, before giving up and booking a flight with easyJet the following day.

“I just didn’t trust Tui to get me there,” he said.

Guttfield was not alone: ​​other passengers on various airlines complained of problems including a 30 hour wait for a flight to Turkey from Manchester, a canceled wedding in Cyprus and spending £6,000 on tickets for the Monaco Grand Prix which was missed.

As more people were caught up in the disruption, consumer groups called for better passenger protection.

“Government and regulators must take their share of responsibility for creating a situation where airlines feel empowered to mistreat passengers,” said Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel.

“Ministers should drop plans to cut passenger compensation when UK domestic flights are delayed or cancelled, and give the Civil Aviation Authority the powers it needs to hold airlines to account. “

Tui said he was “incredibly sorry” for the recent disruption.

“We understand that last-minute delays and cancellations are incredibly disappointing, and we want to reassure our customers that we are doing everything we can to get them on vacation as planned.”