Minister warned staff crisis will lead to ‘inevitable’ travel chaos, aviation union says | Travel

The aviation minister was warned earlier this year that the widespread flight chaos seen last week was ‘inevitable’ and that government intervention was urgently needed to prevent such disruption, according to union sources .

In a phone call with aviation unions in late January, Robert Courts was told the industry would not be able to cope with high demand unless it received help to offset chronic staff shortages.

These predictions played out in sometimes far-fetched scenes last week, with hundreds of flights canceled in one of the busiest weeks of the year, along with day-long delays and queues massive winding out of the terminals.

Sources familiar with the court appeal say that despite concerns over a severe staff shortage after airlines, airports and ground service providers laid off tens of thousands of staff in 2020 over of the Covid pandemic, the government has not offered a solution.

“The Minister was directly warned that it was unavoidable. They have to accept some responsibility,” a union source said on condition of anonymity.

In turn, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps last week directly blamed some of the worst-hit airlines, warning that pressure on the industry does “not excuse poor planning and overbooking of flights they don’t cannot serve”.

As the mid-term holidays and Jubilee weekend drew to a close, there were signs yesterday that the worst of the disruption was beginning to subside.

At Stansted Airport in Essex – a hub for easyJet and TUI Airways, which together canceled dozens of flights last week, some at short notice – staff said the situation was returning to normal. Passengers who landed there on Saturday morning, however, still described shock at the large number of people wanting to fly.

Sisters Margeret Mularkey and Karmel Corbett said they had never seen Dublin Airport so chaotic before boarding their Ryanair flight to England. “It was absolutely crazy. Thousands of people everywhere. They were lining up outside, right in the parking lot,” Mularkey said.

Corbett thought airlines and the government appeared to have been caught off guard by how abruptly demand for flights rebounded after the lockdowns ended.

“They have such an obvious staff shortage and clearly did not expect them to return to previous levels. They must have thought Covid would deter most people from traveling again,” she said.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has blamed airlines for overbooking flights they could not service. Photography: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Mularkey also believed that the relatively low pay and conditions of staff played a role. “The minimum wage is a big issue in Ireland,” she said. “No wonder people left the aviation industry and never came back.”

Behind them was Brian O’Farrell who said safe navigation at Dublin Airport was taking three times longer than usual.

“It was extremely busy,” he said. “There were really a lot of people. I’m glad I decided to bring carry-on only, but it still took me an hour to get through security instead of the usual 20 minutes.”

Not far from there, in a shop decked out in yellow and blue to welcome the hundred Ukrainian refugees who arrive each day in Stansted, Andy Mitson said he was relieved that they had managed to avoid being caught in the chaos. Mitson, who volunteers for CVSU, a community charity based in the Essex district of Uttlesford, said: “The disruption doesn’t seem to have been a big deal for Ukrainians, but to be fair, they have more big problems to solve.”

Meanwhile, hostilities between the government and the aviation industry are set to escalate this week, with airlines continuing to press the government to ease post-Brexit immigration rules and grant workers a EU aviation special visas to ease disruption. Still, the government seems unlikely to change its stance, leaving airlines short-staffed as the summer holidays approach.

The aviation industry says it is struggling to rehire staff quickly enough to cope, largely because potential employees must pass security checks before starting work.

British Airways, for example, lost around 10,000 staff during the pandemic and has since rehired over 2,000, with thousands more reportedly awaiting security clearance.

Unions say the scale of the job losses highlights the lack of government support during the pandemic, a problem later made worse by airlines cutting too drastically in search of savings.

Travel problems could extend to the railways this week as passengers have been warned they are also likely to face disruption after a strike by train drivers. Members of the TransPennine Express Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union quit on Saturday and were due to strike again on Sunday in a protracted pay dispute.

TransPennine Express (TPE) has urged people not to travel, announcing a limited service available for those on essential journeys.

Travel chaos is also in store for Londoners, tourists and workers, with 4,000 Tube workers set to go on strike after the end of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee weekend celebrations.

Warnings of severe disruption are set for Monday with many Tube stations, especially those in central London, set to close completely.

The Department of Transportation has been contacted for comment.

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