Travel is back but are UK airports actually ready?

Mar 31, 2022

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This article has been updated.

British airports are facing a summer of chaos if they can’t solve their staffing crisis, after it emerged international departures have surged by 716% compared to this time last year.

As the summer holiday flight schedule kicks in this week, airlines are enjoying levels of interest they could only have dreamt of a year ago.

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Tui today revealed that bookings are already at 80% of summer 2019 levels while Jet2 said travel confidence was back to “old normal” with holidaymakers scrambling to get away after two years of travel restrictions.

Meanwhile, industry data-cruncher Cirium revealed that international departures from the U.K. this Easter weekend are up 716% compared to 2021, and down only 17% on 2019.

“We have always said that things should return to the ‘old normal’ when the time was right, rather than trying to maintain a ‘new normal’ and it is great to see that this has happened,” said Jet2 chief Steve Heapy. “We are approaching the time of year when our operation ramps up significantly, and we are looking forward to an extremely busy and successful 2022.”

Airports, however, are struggling to cope with this increase in demand.

Related: Enjoy it while you can: 9 things to know about the reopened Gatwick Airport South Terminal

Already “chaotic scenes” have been reported at a number of terminals across Britain and Ireland in recent days while some passengers have even missed flights due to lengthy queues.

Airports have blamed a cross-industry staffing crisis for the problems, caused by a lethal combination of staff illness and post-pandemic recruitment woes.

But the issues, they promise, are not terminal.

TPG reached out to Britain’s major airports for answers on the crisis, and they sought to reassure passengers that they are doing all they can to smooth out the problems.

Although, according to Heathrow at least, it could yet take up to six months to train enough new staff to bring business back to normal. 

So which airports are struggling and what do they say?

Heathrow: chaos at arrivals?

While not the worst affected, Heathrow Airport has not emerged unscathed from the trouble as it grapples with the flood of passengers passing through its gates. 

As recently as Wednesday journeys were thrown in turmoil – with further delays and cancellations expected to carry into Thursday – due to a BA technical issue that resulted in several IT failures. While not the direct fault of Heathrow it’s likely staff there absorbed much of the strain at an already difficult time, with many passengers bemoaning the lack of communication from British Airways.

A spokesperson for the airport said: “We are working with our airport partners to assist passengers whose journeys have been disrupted and have deployed additional resource in our terminals. Passengers are still advised to check their flight status with British Airways before travelling to the airport due to a number of resulting cancellations. We apologise for any inconvenience caused.”

British Airways, meanwhile, provided the following statement this morning: “We’re very sorry to say that as a result of the technical issue we experienced yesterday and predicted weather disruption, we have had to reduce our schedule at Heathrow today [Thursday]”

The airline also added that they were “taking steps to ensure as many customers as possible are able to travel as planned” and that passengers affected would be offered a refund, or be rebooked onto alternative flights. They would also be providing refreshment vouchers and hotel accommodation where needed.”

Last Friday morning, passengers reported being held up on planes on the runway while others had to wait for more than an hour for their bags to be unloaded from aircraft.

There were also delays at passport control at several of the West London hub’s terminals, where some of the e-gates appeared to be out of order. 

Regarding ongoing issues at the U.K’s biggest airport, a spokesperson told TPG that because many of its services had been mothballed during the pandemic, a staffing shortfall was inevitable. And while the airport is trying to plug the gap, “robust security checks required to work at an airport means this can take between 3-6 months from recruitment to starting to work.”

They added: “Over the coming weeks we are expecting to see passenger numbers not seen since early March 2020. As some processes are still a little different, we have deployed extra colleagues across Heathrow to help passengers get on their journeys as quickly and smoothly as possible.”

To make matters worse for Britain’s largest airport, a planned strike is by baggage workers is due to unleash more misery on travellers this Easter. 

Related: We just flew British Airways’ new low-cost service from Gatwick – was it worth the wait?

If that goes ahead, baggage maintenance engineers (employed by Vanderlande Industries) plan to walk out between 8 and 10 April in a row over pay in a walkout that would affect the airport’s entire luggage handling system.

That means possible delays to all airlines operating out of Heathrow, including British Airways, Air France and KLM.

“We are aware of planned industrial action from Vanderlande Industries colleagues who operate at Heathrow,” a spokesperson told TPG. “While we are not involved in the pay discussions, we will of course remain in close contact with Vanderlande Industries and other airport partners when it comes to our operations, including helping them to mitigate any passenger impact should the planned industrial action go ahead.”

Birmingham: ‘fun sucker’?

It has been a similar story at Birmingham Airport this week.

There, reports emerged at the beginning of March of travellers running through the terminal to catch flights after being held up in security queues.

Although the issues at Birmingham appear to be more under control now than at other airports, the Midlands hub has spoken of its troubles in recruiting skilled staff after the pandemic.

“Covid has severely impacted the aviation sector over the past two years,” a spokesperson told us today. “This resulted in the loss of many jobs at Birmingham Airport. During this time there have been many frustrating false starts – one step forward only to end up two steps back.”

The spokesperson echoed other airports’ experience of an “upsurge” in passenger numbers that has been “far more than we anticipated”.

They added: “This is putting our limited numbers of security officers to the test. Yesterday (29 March) 85% of our customers were through security in under 20 minutes, which is what we aim for. That said, some customers have had long waits and we’re sorry for that.”

“To improve wait times, we’re hiring more security officers, with our goal of training and onboarding 20 new security officers each month. These, once trained, will help reduce wait times for our customers.”

Manchester: ‘reputation nosediving’

One of the worst-hit airports has been Manchester, which has endured a month of huge queues for Check-in, Security and Passport Control, as well as issues in other departments including baggage reclaim

Earlier this month, it emerged firefighters had been asked to help on the baggage carousels, while last Friday, a letter was sent to employees asking them to volunteer to help out managing queues.

And yesterday, local city councillor Pat Karney called for an “urgent meeting” to ensure “everything possible is being done”. “We have to get this right as the reputation is nosediving,” he said.

A spokesperson for the airport apologised for the delays, telling TPG that staff shortages and sickness had put operations “under extreme pressure”.

“There has been a large increase in passenger numbers following the start of the travel industry’s summer season, and the situation has been exacerbated by a significant spike in covid-related sickness in recent days,” they said.

“That has meant that, while waiting times were kept to a minimum for the majority of the weekend, these factors have combined to place our operation under extreme pressure this morning.”

The airport said it had launched a huge recruitment drive in a bid to support the “remobilisation of our operations after the biggest crisis our industry has ever faced”.

It added: “Customers are advised to arrive at the earliest time their airline allows them to check-in and to ensure they are familiar with the latest rules around what they can and can’t carry through security.”

Dublin: ‘bunfight of the century’

Meanwhile, Dublin Airport is also struggling with staff shortages causing scenes that one disgruntled passenger described on Monday as “the bun fight of the century”.

“Dublin Airport take [a] bow for what can only be described as the bun fight of the century,” tweeted Alan Cantwell on Monday. “Two and a half hours waiting to get through security and a missed flight. APPALLING.”

Later that day, Ertan Sahin added: “Despite waiting for hours, we could not catch our plane. I condemn the Dublin airport officials who made us experience this disgrace.”

Dublin Airport sought to calm tensions by apologising to passengers for “obvious inconvenience caused to passengers who missed a flight as a result” of the issues. 

A spokesperson added: “Like other airports all over Europe, we are currently working extremely hard to ramp up our operation at Dublin Airport after the collapse of international travel over the past two years, including the recruitment, training and necessary background checks required for all staff working at an international airport.”

They said actions being taken include:

  • The redeployment of staff from other areas of the business
  • A senior management taskforce
  • The “continual review” of staffing arrangements at security points
  • Revised passenger advice
  • The possibility of 24/7 security-gate opening to avoid the build-up of queues ahead of early morning departures

It added: “Because of the COVID pandemic, around 1,000 staff left Dublin Airport under a voluntary severance scheme and while there is an ongoing recruitment drive to replace frontline staff in areas such as security and retail, all companies who operate at airports across Europe are experiencing similar challenges.”

Gatwick: bouncing back?

Last weekend, London Gatwick reopened its South Terminal to great fanfare after two years of pandemic-forced closure.

British Airways has consolidated its short-haul operations there, while Wizz Air expanded its operations to Gatwick too.

Related: EasyJet becomes the latest airline to ditch masks on certain flights

As a result, Gatwick chief Stewart Wingate has said he was looking forward to “bouncing back quickly this summer.” “Passenger demand is really strong,” he added. “We’re going to have a significantly busier April, May and June than we expected.”

Early reports, however, suggest that all may not be as rosy as hoped. According to The Independent, its opening weekend was been blighted by delayed flights, cancelled trains and long queues at customs.

According to Cirium, departing flights from Gatwick have leapt up by nearly 3,000% in April 2022 compared to last year, while the airport will see the highest number of departures from Gatwick (9,805) since December 2019.

The Points Guy has also reached out to London’s Gatwick and Stansted airports, but neither has replied to out requests for comment.

Bottom line

Passenger numbers have exploded in the past month, having grown sharply since the U.K. government lifted all travel restrictions last month.

And now, with the summer flight schedules in full throttle after two years under the shadow of Covid-19, it is only going to get busier.

It is imperative, therefore, that airports get a handle on their current staffing issues or find another way to speed up their clearance procedures.

However, while airports can be blamed to a certain extent for the issues, you can do your bit by arriving early and making sure you are ready with liquids in see-through bags and laptops out.

Per the Birmingham Airport spokesperson: “On average 1,500 customers a day have baggage rejected, of which 70% are liquids in carry-on bags. Nearly 20% of all rejects are electrical items. While these are permitted, items such as laptops, kindles and tablets must be taken out of bags and placed in a tray. Customers can increase the chances of speedy journeys by arriving in good time and making sure their baggage is security-compliant.”

Featured image by Ian Vogler – pool / Getty Images.

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