The chief executive of London’s Heathrow airport, the UK’s largest, has warned it will take up to 18 months for the aviation industry to rehire staff and return operations to pre-pandemic levels, following a gruelling period of disruption and cancellations.
John Holland-Kaye said airlines and airports needed to “plan much better” to avoid further cancellations and delays this summer, and to give passengers enough advance notice if their flight is affected.
“I think it will take 12 to 18 months for the aviation sector to fully recover capacity, so we will have to really carefully manage supply and demand . . . to make sure we can give people a good and predictable experience,” he told the Financial Times’ Global Boardroom conference.
The aviation industry cut tens of thousands of jobs during the pandemic and is now struggling to rehire after demand for travel snapped back very quickly this year.
“What we saw in some airports in the UK over the past few weeks is that supply and demand were out of balance . . . we need to make sure we are planning much better,” he said.
Passengers have been warned to expect continued disruption during the busy summer period as air traffic control delays across Europe compound the staffing shortage.
Heathrow has asked airlines to cut passenger numbers at some times of the day over the summer to ease overcrowding, while airlines including British Airways and easyJet have cut their flight schedules to try to avoid too many last-minute cancellations.
But a spate of further cancellations at the weekend has left thousands of UK holidaymakers stranded abroad after going on half-term breaks last week. EasyJet cancelled a further 60 UK flights on Tuesday, adding to the 500 cancelled by airlines over the four-day bank holiday weekend.
The airline said 1,600 flights carrying a quarter of a million customers operated smoothly across Europe on Tuesday, but apologised to those caught in the disruption over the past few days. “We are very sorry and fully understand the disruption this will have caused for our customers,” easyJet said.
One passenger told the BBC he had spent £6,000 on new flights, accommodation and food for three families after their flight back from Crete was cancelled by easyJet on Monday.
Another, Michael Norman, who on Monday told the FT he was spending at least £750 on new travel plans to get two people back from Portugal, said large groups or families without a credit card or the means to pay thousands of pounds in new fares were “screwed”.
The aviation industry has suffered from staff shortages globally, but problems have been particularly pronounced in the UK.
Holland-Kaye said ministers could help by further easing the rules around security background checks for new staff, and that employers should be given access to HM Revenue & Customs records to check on candidates’ employment history.
“They could give us access to the data in an instant and get people into work two months quicker, that would make a huge difference,” he said.
Charlie Cornish, the chief executive of Manchester Airports Group, said his company is waiting for 700 new starters to clear training and vetting, and called on the government to do more to help the industry.
“Given the backlog, government should dedicate more resources to speed up the security vetting that needs to take place before people can work in an airport environment and find smarter ways to carry out these checks,” he said.
The Department for Transport did not immediately response to a request for comment.