As the pandemic entered its third summer, airline bookings soared as consumers planned long-awaited trips after years of staying put – but the industry was not 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, from or within the US, UK and Europe were disrupted – delayed or canceled – as airlines s were scrambling to scale up operations to meet growing demand, while labor shortages ranged 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 imposed unprecedented caps on passenger numbers and airlines cut their summer hours. An industry-wide hiring campaign has also attracted more staff.
In the first half of August, 29% of flights to, from or within the UK were delayed or canceled, compared to around 35% in June and July, according to a Financial Times analysis of FlightAware flight tracking data.
A quarter of the 480,000 flights to, from or within Europe scheduled for the first 17 days of August were interrupted, compared to 29% in July.
“Obviously we have different challenges in different markets, but overall the UK is by far the worst,” said Warwick Brady, managing director of Swissport, one of the biggest ground handling companies. in the world.
Brady pointed to factors such as travel restrictions and difficulties hiring workers after Brexit.
Heathrow, the UK’s busiest airport, this week extended an unprecedented cap on passenger numbers until the end of October to ensure its operations can cope, blaming company staff shortages ground handling services employed by airlines.
In the United States, a blame game has been played out between the airlines and the federal government.
Most US carriers have reduced their schedules for the rest of the year. Delta cut 100 daily flights over a five-week period in July and early August, while United Airlines has pledged to fly less until aviation infrastructure improves.
“The whole system is under strain,” United chief executive Scott Kirby said. “There are tight squads everywhere. . . that is why we are reducing our capacity and waiting to grow until the whole system catches up.
US airlines peaked in disruptions in June, when nearly 26% 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% of canceled flights. Southwest Airlines experienced the most delays for the May, June and July period.
In the United States, disruptions were worse every month of the year than in 2019, even as airlines flew less.
“We didn’t do as well as we could,” Delta chief executive Ed Bastian told the FT of the carrier’s struggles to meet demand in June, with difficulties compounded by bad weather. and air traffic control delays.
Delta’s disruptions declined – from 24% in June to 20% in the first half of August – but “Europe is different,” Bastian said.
“When the pandemic hit, their governments weren’t there for them. In hindsight, and we are very lucky, the US government came up with the [Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security] Acting early and allowed us to keep our employees in place. Airport employees were able to stay engaged.
US carriers have received about $54 billion in government support aimed at keeping airline workers on the payroll. They have also been less affected by travel restrictions as their domestic flight market is much larger.
Some European governments have offered financial support to airlines, but there have still been major layoffs by airlines, airports and ground service providers.
Disruption rates in Europe remained below 2019 levels until the number of flights started to rise in April this year, when it jumped to 18% from 12% in March. Rates reached almost 30% in July.
Akbar Al Baker, chief executive of Qatar Airways, told the FT in July that disruption at European airports had reached “epidemic” levels and the industry could take “a few” years to recover.
There could also be more brewing issues.
“We face three risks that could grow over the next six to 18 months,” Kirby said, referring to “industry-wide operational challenges that limit system capacity, record fuel and the growing possibility of a global recession”.