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Holidays on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Towards a chaotic summer in air travel?

It could be chaotic at airports this summer.

It could be chaotic at airports this summer.

©Stephane de Sakutin / Agence France-Presse

Panic at the airport

The massive influx of passengers and staff shortages at airports and within airlines can lead to chaotic situations on summer vacation.

Atlantico: After the period of the Covid-19 epidemic, many travelers from all over the world will use the plane in the summer of 2022. However, certain conditions in the air sector may spoil the holidays of many travelers … Fear of strikes, staff shortages, rising prices and increased demand, Should we expect chaos at international airports this summer?

Paul Ciamparito: The state of air transport is truly exceptional as we are emerging from two unprecedented years of crisis for the sector. Covid was -60% traffic around the world in 2020, the biggest shockwave since World War II. In the worst periods of the crisis, in France, we were between -95 and -99% of traffic. Currently, the recovery is very strong. In France, we have between 85 and 90% of equivalent activity in 2019. And some airlines, especially low-cost ones, have exceeded their level for 2019. The irony is that not all airlines and airports bet on such a quick recovery. The consensus in the aviation sector was a return to normal for 2023 or even 2024. Especially since waves of Covid, until last spring, prompted the sector to be cautious about hiring. Except that everything started again, faster than expected for the summer period, and airlines such as airports are having trouble replenishing their staff, recruiting people who have been set to work for short time or have left these sectors during the crisis. What is complicated is that even if they are sent back, it takes several weeks or months for them to reach these companies’ quality and safety standards. Being able to prepare for summer was a process expected in December or January, the time when it would. And it wasn’t, because we were in the midst of a new wave of Covid. So we have a return to nearly 90% of the activity, with fewer employees, which could lead to bottlenecks. Recruitment campaigns have been underway for several weeks or months, but it is not easy to recruit, especially in jobs that require skills that can also be mobilized in other sectors.

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Is there a shortage of staff everywhere?

There is a shortage everywhere, but not for the same reasons. In airlines, there will be a shortage of flight crew due to the existence of many voluntary departure plans, such as Air France, or breach of contracts in low-cost companies. Therefore, there is a shortage of employees, and replacing them is complex and takes time, even if only until they reach the standards of the company. At airports, activities are often outsourced: baggage check-in, security, etc. These subcontractors have difficult working conditions for wages that are not necessarily very attractive. During Covid, these individuals were able to realize that they might have potential in other sectors, with less challenging working conditions (no need to get up at 3am to accommodate the 5am flight to the airport for example). So the challenge lies in the ability to recruit. But it may require thinking about the salaries and benefits that come with them. This is what will generate bottlenecks along the chain. It is observed in France and abroad. In Amsterdam, endless queues are observed, simply due to the lack of staff. However, the flows were not exceptional, they were only at the level of 2019.

What are the tangible consequences for users?

These are very long queues, connections that can be missed, and flights that can be delayed or canceled. But those who say that theft is repressed say that with similar demand, supply is less, which can lead to higher prices. This will affect consumers at all levels. This will likely stabilize after the summer. Except that even if there is a desire to attract employees, there is still a certain reluctance to do so. 2021 was a very nice summer, but it cooled off very quickly with the Omicron wave.

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We are already seeing an increase in prices compared to last year. He is particularly driven by the trend of revenge travel. After being denied travel for months, we retaliate by flying, which partly explains this price hike.

A few weeks before the start of the summer period, does the airline industry have the means to find short-term solutions? Can employees be hired or reassigned?

The short-term solutions, and what the unions denounce, are getting crews already in place to work longer hours. Maneuvering space is limited, as there are legal limits to avoid endangering passengers. Above all, the main danger is crew fatigue which may lead to dangers for some passengers. This is denounced by unions, who do not want the recovery to breed bad corporate habits.

Does that explain the strike notes we’re talking about at the moment?

Partly, but it’s also the time to rebalance bargaining power. When the sector is doing better, it’s time to renegotiate your salary and working conditions.

To what extent will the strikes add complexity to the situation?

The airline industry does not like uncertainty. It is a well-oiled machine that runs in time. So any source of uncertainty or delay can have repercussions that are very complex to manage and very costly for all operators.

How can travelers cope to avoid panic and long queues this summer? Should you wait and postpone your vacation in August?

The situation is not exactly the same from one airport to another. We have the impression that the problems are greater at the big airports, at least those in the big cities. Getting out of a secondary provincial town is perhaps a solution to slightly fewer problems than if we were to leave Paris, Brussels or London. Otherwise, you should come to the airport early and make time for communications. But in reality, these are verbs that remain marginal.

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