As the pandemic entered its third summer, airline bookings roared back as consumers planned long-awaited trips after years of layovers — but the industry wasn’t ready.
Air travel on both sides of the Atlantic has been in disarray this summer. From early May to mid-August, a quarter of flights to, out of or within the US, UK and Europe were disrupted – delayed or canceled – as airlines struggled to scale up operations to meet rising demand, while labor shortages varied from pilots to cabin crew, ground staff and air traffic controllers.
The situation has finally started to improve in the UK and Europe, after busy airports introduced unprecedented caps on passenger numbers and airlines cut their summer routes. An industry-wide recruitment campaign also led to more employees.
In the first half of August, 29 per cent of flights to, out of or within the UK were delayed or cancelled, down from about 35 per cent in June and July, according to a Financial Times analysis of data from flight tracker FlightAware.
A quarter of the 480,000 flights to, out of or within Europe scheduled for the first 17 days of August were disrupted, down from 29 percent for July.
“Obviously we have different challenges in different markets, but overall the UK is by far the worst,” said Warwick Brady, chief executive of Swissport, one of the world’s biggest ground handling companies.
Brady pointed to factors such as travel restrictions and difficulties in hiring workers after Brexit.
Heathrow, Britain’s busiest airport, this week extended an unprecedented cap on passenger numbers until the end of October to ensure operations can cope, blaming a shortage of staff at ground handling companies employed by airlines.
In the US, a blame game has played out between airlines and the federal government.
Most US airlines have reduced their timetables for the rest of the year. Delta cut 100 daily flights during a five-week period in July and early August, while United Airlines has committed to flying less until aviation infrastructure is improved.
“The whole system is strained,” United boss Scott Kirby said. “There is tight staffing everywhere. . . that is why we are reducing capacity and waiting to grow until the whole system catches up.”
US airlines reached peak disruptions in June, when nearly 26 percent of flights were disrupted, a figure that fell slightly in July and the first half of August.
In June, American Airlines was the “big four” airline with the most cancellations, with 5 percent of flights being canceled. Southwest Airlines has had the most delays in May, June and July.
In the US, the disruptions have been worse every month of the year than in 2019, even though the airlines have flown less.
“We didn’t do as well as we could,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian told the FT of the airline’s struggle to meet demand in June, with difficulties compounded by bad weather and air traffic control delays.
Delta’s disruptions have declined — falling from 24 percent in June to 20 percent in the first half of August — but “Europe is different,” Bastian said.
“When the pandemic hit, the governments weren’t there for them. Looking back, and we’re very lucky, the US government came along [Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security] Acting early enabled us to keep our staff in place. The employees at the airport managed to stay engaged.”
US airlines received approximately $54 billion in government subsidies aimed at keeping airline employees on the payroll. They were also less affected by travel restrictions because their domestic air market is so much larger.
Some European governments offered the airlines financial support, but there were still significant layoffs by airlines, airports and ground handlers.
The disruption rate in Europe remained below the 2019 level until the number of aircraft began to increase in April this year, when they increased to 18 percent, from 12 percent in March. Prices reached close to 30 percent in July.
Akbar Al Baker, chief executive of Qatar Airways, told the FT in July that disruptions at European airports had reached “epidemic levels” and that the industry could take a “couple” of years to recover.
There may also be more problems with brewing.
“We must confront three risks that could grow over the next six to 18 months,” Kirby said, citing “industry-wide operational challenges limiting system capacity, record fuel prices and the growing possibility of a global recession”.