More turbulence in store for passengers as airline industry grapples with disruptions

Soaring demand, bottlenecks, staffing issues and Covid outbreaks are dragging down aviation’s summer take-off

Airlines cancelled about 60 flights in to or out of Dublin Airport over eight days from June 22nd to 29th, disrupting thousands of passengers planning to fly to or from the Republic. Irish carrier Aer Lingus was responsible for about half of the total due to a well-documented outbreak of Covid-19 among crews.

The company maintains that passengers were re-accommodated as quickly as possible, either on Aer Lingus flights, services provided by others within International Airlines Group, of which it is a part along with British Airways, or carriers outside that organisation. It has also stresses that close to 99 per cent of its scheduled June flights took off despite the Covid problem.

Aer Lingus was by no means the only airline to drop flights over that period. Exactly one year on from the EU reopening travel, on July 1st, 2021, the industry is creaking under the twin weights of high demand and labour shortages.

High-profile industry names — including American Airlines, British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa and its low-cost offshoot Eurowings, and United Airlines — dropped Dublin services over the eight-day period. All blame a similar set of problems.

The airlines that commented did not say how many passengers suffered, but estimates are as high as 12,000. KLM blamed weather and a “shortage in hub staff” for the cancellation of Amsterdam flights on June 24th, 27th and 28th. Amsterdam Schiphol is one of several big European airports where bottlenecks have been forcing airlines to axe services.

Airport problems are a recurring theme. Eurowings cited problems with baggage screening and police background checks on new staff slowing recruitment of airport workers among the reasons for its cancellation of services from Düsseldorf and Cologne last week.

The German carrier also blamed last weekend’s French air traffic controllers’ strike, a problem that Irish group Ryanair also singled out for forcing it to cut Milan and Brussels flights.

United Airlines blamed a technical problem with an aircraft and an “unexpected operational issue” for dropping flights to Newark, New Jersey on Thursday last week and Monday. American Airlines gave no reason for cancelling Dallas and Chicago services, but confirmed that it had done so.

Lufthansa gave no reasons for cancelling flights from Munich and Frankfurt last Friday and Monday. However, spokesman Boris Ogursky says air traffic control strikes and increased Covid absences have put additional strain on the system.

“In more general terms, the entire aviation industry, especially in Europe, is currently suffering from bottlenecks and staff shortages,” he explains. The German company has taken 900 flights out of its July schedule. The airline had already cancelled 2,200 flights from Frankfurt and Munich for the entire summer.

The problem is more widespread than Ireland or Europe. Air Canada chief executive Michael Rousseau recently wrote to customers saying the carrier intended cancelling some scheduled flights in July and August to cut passenger numbers to a level “the air transport system can accommodate”.

Rousseau says people are flying at a rate never seen in the industry. “This surge in travel has created unprecedented and unforeseen strains on all aspects of the global aviation system,” he adds.

The airline says the cuts will largely apply to domestic flights to and from its Toronto and Montreal hubs. They will not hit international services, although a spokesman indicated that Air Canada could change the times for some of these services to avoid peaks and “even out” passenger flows. However, he said the plans will not affect Dublin Airport.

That airline did not cancel any Dublin flights last week, but it was one of a group, Airlines for America, that wrote to the Government warning of the impact of bottlenecks at the Irish airport. Its chief executive’s letter shows that its problems are more rooted in its home territory rather than anything that has happened at the Irish gateway.

The bottom line is that airlines and airports are grappling with two things: a surge in the number of people flying, many for the first time since 2019; and difficulties across the board — among carriers, airports, ground handling companies, caterers and so on — with hiring enough people to cope with that.

Eurowings points out in its statement that everything has to run “smoothly” for air travel to function. That means aircraft landing and taking off on time, ground handlers managing baggage, refuelling and other services quickly, and passengers getting through airports with no hold-ups.

An Irish source echoes this, explaining that a problem in one place can have a knock-on effect in another. A delay in an aircraft taking off from one place can result in it being late to leave that destination if it is flying on somewhere else. Normally, air travel networks can absorb this with little disruption, but, as the source points out, “the system is now stretched really tight”. Consequently, even everyday issues can cause major upsets.

Aer Lingus and Air Canada both point out that they built what they believed were “appropriate buffers” into their plans to deal with reasonable levels of delays and problems. However, neither foresaw the surge in demand or the recruitment difficulties across the industry.

While all this was happening last week, the Government was discussing a contingency plan to allow soldiers to man some security posts at Dublin Airport to ensure there would be enough staff to handle the swelling ranks of passengers.

A month ago, Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Minister for Defence Simon Coveney ruled out using the Defence Forces for security at Dublin Airport. However, the Government conceded to a request from Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan and Minister of State at the Department of Transport Hildegarde Naughton this week, strictly on the basis that it is a contingency on which the airport can only call during the six weeks to August 15th.

Should they be called upon, unarmed soldiers will man entry points for fuel, cargo and other vehicles that regularly serve the airport, allowing up to 100 security staff who normally do this work to cover security lanes. Defence Force personnel will not deal with passengers.

So far, Dublin Airport has avoided that and has pledged to take every step to ensure that it will not happen (although it cannot control what happens elsewhere). Since the last Sunday in May, when a rostering mix-up and unexpectedly high absences among security staff caused 1,000 passengers to miss flights, DAA says that the steps it has taken are ensuring that most people get through screening in less than 45 minutes.

DAA continues to recruit security staff, aiming to have a full complement of 920 before the Defence Forces contingency is no longer needed in mid-August. It also says that it has multiple applications for each post, so the issue boils down to recruiting at speed. Along with the rest of the Irish industry, it has agreed a system with An Garda Síochána to deal with extra security background checks on new staff that the Government introduced this year, easing one delay in getting new workers.

None of the airlines contacted blamed any problem at the Irish airport for their decision to cancel flights. All of them maintain that passengers were re-accommodated as quickly as possible. European carriers are obliged to inform discommoded customers of their rights under EU law, which include rerouting and refunds, which must be paid in cash.

However, it is clear that the overall industry problems are not going away any time soon. During Covid, virtually every sector in the business across the world let people go, stalled recruitment or simply saw staff leave for better-paid jobs. Replacing them quickly is now a challenge.

When DAA chief executive Dalton Philips faced the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport last month, politicians, and a few journalists, demanded to know why the company did not see this coming. Few in the industry did.

In a report last October, Eurocontrol, a Europe-wide organisation of air traffic control bodies, predicted in its “best-case” that flying would return to 89 per cent of 2019 levels by next year, before continuing to grow beyond that. In its gloomiest scenario, Eurocontrol said that air travel would not get back to normal until 2027.

Most air travel organisations had similar views, which were broadly that passenger numbers would hit 2019 levels in or around 2024. Irish group Ryanair was more optimistic. Last year it said that 2022 traffic across Europe would be around 90 per cent of 2019, with growth returning in 2023.

That could prove to be nearer the mark. While flying is now booming, Covid’s Omicron strain and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February both slowed bookings in the opening months of the year. In fact, it was not until March or April that air travel took off — which many have forgotten — so the current boom must be balanced against that sluggish start.

Those predictions also highlighted that Irish air travel looked set to lag behind the rest of Europe. Even while the EU reopened a year ago, the Government persisted with tough travel restrictions until July 17th. Irish people’s understandable appetite for sun holidays proved the forecasters wrong, but, along with other Europeans, they could face some turbulence on the way to the beach.