Airline bosses blame Brexit for UK flight chaos, are they right?

Jun 23, 2022

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Amid the utter bedlam that has engulfed much of the U.K’s commercial aviation sector (mountains of luggage, hundreds of flights being axed daily, the fact you’ve opted for a fortnight in Wales), bosses of major airlines have laid the blame firmly at the door of Brexit.

The CEOs claim that since Britain’s exit from the EU they are unable to hire visa-free workers, which is, in turn, hampering operations across the industry.

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Johan Lundgren, EasyJet’s chief executive, told The Independent that the airline has had to turn down 8,000 job applications from EU citizens as they did not have a green light to work in the U.K.

“The pool of people is smaller, it’s just maths,” he told the newspaper. “We have had to turn down a huge number of EU nationals because of Brexit. Pre-pandemic we would have turned down 2-2.5% because of nationality issues. Now it’s 35-40% per cent.”

Going one step further on Tuesday, Ryanair’s flamboyantly outspoken boss Michael O’Leary took aim at the British government directly for its handling of Brexit, claiming Boris Johnson and co. couldn’t “run a sweet shop”.

Related: British Airways check-in staff set to strike during peak of summer holidays

Comair British Airways plane. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

“We are hide-bound and hamstrung by a Government so desperate to show Brexit has been a success when it’s been an abject failure, it won’t allow us to bring in EU workers to do these jobs,” he added.

Even London mayor Sadiq Khan got in on the act this month, calling Brexit, and the government’s handling of this “self-inflicted” issue, the reason for all the aviation strife.

“The government should recognise that there are shortages in this occupation, of those who work in aviation,” Khan told the BBC. “What you can do very easily is to make sure those who were in those jobs before, who’ve gone back to their country of origin in the EU, are encouraged to come back.

“[The government must] get around the table with the aviation sector, the airports, those who run the airlines, to see what exactly their problems are. If there is a shortage, change the list to make sure those [employees] can come easier than other occupations.”

Related: EasyJet confirms it will be cancelling hundreds more summer flights

It’s not as if the airlines haven’t been trying. Earlier this month, Jet2 boss Steve Heapy had heated talks with U.K. transport secretary Grant Shapps, who rejected pleas to relax rules and help them hire visa-free staff.

“Mr Heapy expressed his frustrations with the current employment market — as Brexit has taken hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people out of the job market and that is having an impact on many industries, including ours,” said a Jet2 statement following the meeting.

Other ministers however have doubled down, saying that Brexit isn’t to blame for the flight chaos including Treasury MP Simon Clarke, who said he “does not accept” that the ongoing cancellations are because of the B-word.

Schiphol International Airport in the Netherlands (Photo by funky-data/Getty)

Circling its wagons, the government’s aviation minister, Robert Courts has also denied Britain’s departure from the EU is the reason for staffing issues at airports, telling a committee of MPs last week: “On the evidence we have, it looks as if Brexit has little if anything to do with it.”

Could No.10 actually be right? Like a Transformer morphing into an airport shuttle bus, is there more than meets the eye to these claims from airline execs?

For one thing, the U.K certainly isn’t the only country whose air transport hubs are under increased pressure following the easing of COVID-19 restrictions and upsurge in passenger numbers.

Related: Heathrow’s ‘baggage mountain’ affects 15,000 passengers

In the past few days, Amsterdam Schiphol has announced it’s to cancel hundreds of flights and limit passenger numbers following record passenger delays, Brussels airport (BRU) cancelled all of its flights this Monday due to nationwide strike action, and many more European hubs are buckling under the weight of increased footfall.

Over the Atlantic, meanwhile, U.S. airports have also struggled to get fully on track ahead of what promises to be a tense summer for travel. Staff shortages, strike action, record inflation and increased fuel prices have all, at one time or other, been blamed for the problems that have seen roughly 14,000 flights cancelled last weekend alone.

Closer to home, many U.K-based airlines claim the need to hire visa-free workers is because British nationals don’t actually want to do the jobs, with Jet2’s Heapy reportedly telling government officials that too many homegrown applicants miss interviews.

Jet2 has since tried to put out that particular fire, saying that stories ‘being circulated are categorically not the views of Mr Heapy or our proudly UK-based company’, but the sentiment has stuck nonetheless.

Ryanair’s O’Leary meanwhile was characteristically clear on his own views on the matter: “An awful lot of these pinch points would be resolved very quickly and very frankly if we could bring people in to do these jobs that people in the UK are not applying for and don’t want to do,” he told Sky News.

Curiously, Ryanair also claim its staffing levels for the cabins and cockpits are tip-top, and instead blamed staffing issues on the ground — some of which would fall under airport control.

“Ryanair is operating a full schedule, we are fully scheduled with cabin crew and pilots, but last weekend 24% of our flights were delayed by air traffic control delays and another 15% were delayed by airport and handling delays,” said O’Leary. “I think it is going to be a struggle through the summer.’

After reaching out to leading U.K. airports, TPG was repeatedly told that they remain on track to meet new staffing targets and cope with extra demand following the Easter and Jubilee bank holidays. Perhaps pointedly, some airports were keen to point out that while security recruitment lies with them, crew and ground handling staff is the airline’s responsibility.

Indeed, are airlines more to blame than they let on, and could in fact tough working conditions be a bigger reason as to why airlines are actually struggling to recruit people on the ground?

It’s just been announced by unions that EasyJet cabin crew based in Spain will take industrial action for nine days in July over a pay dispute. Meanwhile, on Thursday (23 June) British Airway’s Heathrow check-in staff also voted to strike over unfair pay.

Related: Gatwick Airport set to cancel one in 10 summer flights to avoid further chaos

One senior aviation source recently told TPG that low pay in the industry was hitting recruitment drives among airlines and airports, with many potential recruits also potentially warded off from working on the frontline due to the recent passenger chaos.

(Photo by Ben Smithson/The Points Guy)

Or could it just be a perfect storm of many things right now. Brexit. A pandemic. Outdated wage structures. Three million passengers wanting to head to Benidorm – a multitude of issues that have come at just the worst time possible. After all, as Sadiq Khan said earlier this month, “It isn’t about Covid – this is about Brexit plus Covid.” And then the rest…

Bottom line

From passport issues to staff recruitment and fees on foreign cash withdrawals, there’s no doubt Britain leaving the EU has affected British holidaymakers and the U.K. travel industry in some ways. However, by blaming Brexit airline bosses are overlooking other factors, including a post-COVID-19 hangover and domestic economic uncertainty clashing with poor pay and working conditions for airline workers.

It’s easy to argue that these CEOs should also accept some responsibility. Given that travel is still set to remain at least 10% lower than pre-pandemic levels this year, there’s little doubt carriers could have prepared better. Despite as is often heralded in soundbites, the current surge in travel is not “unprecedented” — it’s not even as busy as it once was and it’s only going to get busier.

That said, the U.K. government could be making things easier. As we’ve seen with its ‘landing slot amnesty’ this week, there are ways ministers can alleviate pressure, but more innovative policies are needed. Measures like the landing amnesty are logistical nightmares. They won’t happen quickly and right now we need fast solutions. Allowing airlines to once again hire visa-free workers could certainly be one of those solutions.

If No.10 is also unable (or unwilling) to budge on this, then it must show it means business in other ways — perhaps through financial packages to ensure prospective staff do ‘want to do these jobs’ or even by giving the Civil Air Authority the power to fine airlines that cancel services at the 11th hour.

There’s friction between airline, airports and the government as to who should bear the brunt of responsibility for the recent strife. But if bosses want to avoid repeat scenes of what transpired over Easter half-term, or worse, it’s got to be a joint effort from here on in.

Featured photo by Getty Images.

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