Airline understaffing and strikes turn summer into an odyssey of delays, cancellations and lost bags

A bad summer to travel by plane. That is the quick summary of the situation that is being experienced in the large international airports and in the operations of some of the main airlines. There are strikes by different groups –be they pilots, flight personnel or check-in operators–, there is an evident lack of personnel in some aerodromes and forced cancellations continue because the companies are simply not able to respond to the demand.

A clear example is what happened last week in the United States with the SAS airline, owned by the Swedish and Danish states. A pilots' strike due to the company's contracting conditions forced the company to declare bankruptcy in that country as it was unable to face a millionaire cost, each day of unemployment, of 13 million dollars. On Friday alone, SAS canceled more than 180 flights, in one of the busiest air traffic days of the year in the United States.

"I am between a rock and a hard place," the SAS CEO, Anko van de Werff, has had to acknowledge in his negotiations with the unions, according to information collected by the Reuters agency. "I am not in a position to sign an agreement that could condition investors to invest in us. If we do not have investors, we are not going anywhere," according to his version.

This strike is causing hundreds of flights to be grounded and, in addition, the company has to look for alternatives to ensure that the affected passengers can reach their destination. The reason for the strike is the hiring model. SAS pilots reject that the company expands the workforce in this category through subsidiaries, with worse conditions than in the parent company. Instead, they are open to lowering their own salaries.

What happened with SAS is relevant because of the background, because it entails a declaration of suspension of payments, but it is by no means a unique case because, on this side of the Atlantic, mobilizations also take place. For now, one has come to an end. British Airways, which is part of IAG – the same consortium that Iberia and Vueling are part of – has sealed an agreement with the two unions that represent check-in staff at Heathrow airport. They have stopped the protests after the British airline has promised to undo the 10% salary cut it carried out as a shock measure because the pandemic grounded all its planes and its turnover plummeted.

This situation, added to the lack of staff in many European airports, had led British to announce the cancellation of up to 10,300 flights between now and October, especially short-haul flights. Now, with this agreement with the Unite and GMB unions, the outlook in the UK is not so negative, but it is far from normal.

"All of our constituencies, who are predominantly low-wage women, wanted to end the pay cuts that British Airways imposed with the pandemic, which threatened to fire and rehire them if they refused. They are the ones calling the shots. face, daily, before the anger of the clients", explained in declarations to 'The Guardian', the representative of the GMB union, Nadine Houghton.

It is not the only airline that takes some oxygen: also those that operate in Parisian airports, after the Aéroports de Paris (ADP) group has accepted a 3% salary increase for about 1,800 employees. But that doesn't end the fear of trouble. "I am cautious, but we have had very relevant conversations, promoted by the State, between the workers and the management team of APD, also with SNCF," French Transport Minister Clement Beaune assured a few days ago. This last company, the railway operator that owns Ouigo, has also called strikes because the workforce is demanding better wages.

A salary increase is also not enough to mitigate the discomfort of some workers who, on many occasions, have not recovered the working conditions they had before the pandemic, a situation aggravated by the current peak in inflation. This is what happens to Transavia, the 'low cost' banner of Air France-KLM that has left the option of strikes open, between now and September, according to a spokesperson told the US agency Bloomberg.

In other cases, the mobilizations take their toll. This has happened at Easyjet -which is one of the airlines with the most called strikes, also in Spain-, which has charged its director of operations, Peter Bellew, because his management in recent months has not been sufficient to avoid cancellation of hundreds of flights. In Spain, the low-cost chain has six more strike days pending (July 15, 16, 17, 29, 30 and 31) that will affect operations at the airports of Malaga, El Prat in Barcelona and Palma de Majorca.

The crew members of the company stop in Spain as a measure to try to improve their working conditions in the new agreement. The USO union, which has 80% of the airline's unionized crew affiliated, has criticized the company's attitude in this negotiation process, in which they demand that the base salary be progressively equal to that of other workers who perform the same functions, for example, in France.

The renegotiation of the collective agreement has also been behind the strikes in recent weeks by Ryanair, which has led to criticism between union representatives (USO and Sitcpla) and the Irish group's management. The former claim that, during the strike at the beginning of the summer Ryanair did not meet the minimum services, because it did not cancel flights, and brought cabin crew from other countries. For this reason, he considers that the right to strike of the workforce would have been "violated", according to the representatives of the workforce, which would lead to a complaint before the Labor Inspectorate.

Ryanair in Spain is different because it entails a clear fork in the road between the unions that represent its cabin crew. At the end of May, the multinational sealed an agreement with CCOO to improve both wage conditions, such as minimum hours and guarantee of hiring by the company, which are only applicable to members of this union, not to those of USO and Sitcpla. After this union split, the CEO of Ryanair, Eddie Wilson, assured that, with their strike call, USO and Sitcpla "only want to appear in the newspapers" and "have nothing to offer but chaos and noise." Regarding criticism that Ryanair replaced striking cabin crew with employees from other countries, he said that was "nonsense" because "the law allows us to cover those flights with crew from other countries."

The mobilizations of the two 'low cost' airlines are not the only problems of the airports in Spain since the holiday season began last Easter, although there are differences with respect to what happens in other European airports. Here the lack of personnel has been blamed, by the airlines and tourist companies, on the lack of police officers at passport controls, which leads to more queues of passengers, even more so when the British – after Brexit – also they have to go through them.

Waiting times that entail delays and loss of connections that "negatively affect the image of Spain as a destination", according to the President of the Airline Association (ALA), Javier Gándara. "Those images can make them go to some neighboring country instead of Spain," she said. However, here the problems of queues, delays, flight cancellations, lost connections and baggage that arrive late because the operators do not have time to load it before takeoff, are considerably lower than those of other European aerodromes.

In Spanish airports there are no problems of lack of personnel. During the months of the pandemic and mobility restrictions, Aena resorted to the Covid ERTE and the workforce returned to their jobs as soon as the appetite for travel returned and the limitations were lifted. The same has not happened in other facilities, such as Heathrow in London or Schiphol in Amsterdam, which do not have the same ground workers as before COVID-19. Also, like the aforementioned salary increase that British workers have demanded, there is a salary problem, which can lead to more cancellations and problems if the templates are not reinforced. The German Lufthansa has announced problems in carrying out all the scheduled operations this week and the Franco-Dutch group Air France-KLM has assumed that it will have to cancel around twenty daily flights between now and the end of August.

And the apologies come. This Monday, the CEO of Heathrow airport has apologized to travelers. "We have not been able to provide a good service to travelers," John Holland-Kaye acknowledged in a statement. The justification given by the airport manager is that the growth in the last four months has been the equivalent in intensity to what has happened in the last 40 years. To this is added that there is not the same staff as in 2019. The London airport acknowledges that it began to hire personnel, before the return to normality of tourism, last November. However, until the end of this month of July, it does not expect to recover pre-COVID-19 staffing levels.

The London airport is one of those that does publish the working conditions of the job offers it publishes. For example, you currently have open vacancies within your security services. For that position he offers a salary of 12.13 pounds per hour, in two shift options: 10 hours on Saturday and as many on Sunday; or 8.5 hours a day during the week. A remuneration that is not far from the 12.63 euros per hour that the Dutch Schiphol aerodrome offers for those who are in charge of the baggage. A job in different shifts that, on average, is between five and eight hours a day.

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