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Summer travels in dire straits as cancellations, skill shortage rise

By Wole Oyebade
02 May 2022   |   4:10 am
Operators and industry experts have warned that massive flight disruption awaits summer travellers this season, with a possible yearlong effect on the sector.

PHOTO: WOLE OYEBADE

Operators and industry experts have warned that massive flight disruption awaits summer travellers this season, with a possible yearlong effect on the sector.

Though passenger traffic demand has surged to an all-time high since the COVID-19 recovery began, airlines and airport infrastructure are on the back foot in the race to keep up with demand pressure. Airlines especially, are facing a staff shortage having laid off several workers at the peak of the devastating pandemic.

Stakeholders in Nigeria said the development was expected and is an opportunity for local idle capacity to harness.

Already, flights originating from the United Kingdom are feeling the pinch of cancellations, offering no guarantee for holidaymakers hoping to fly to Europe and the United States.

British Airways, for instance, has axed hundreds of flights on some routes to the U.S. and the Far East until September, affecting thousands of travellers after it had already cancelled more than 1,000 flights in little more than three weeks.

Routes affected include London to Berlin, Dublin, Geneva, Paris, Stockholm, Athens and Prague. The flagship carrier axed another 200-plus flight early this week, affecting an estimated 20,000 passengers.

JetBlue Airways has notified staffers of the plan to trim its summer schedule to avoid flight disruptions as it scrambles to hire ahead of what executives expect to be a monster peak travel season.

JetBlue’s COO and president, Joanna Geraghty, said in an email to staff: “We’ve already reduced May capacity 8-10 per cent and you can expect to see a similar size capacity pull for the remainder of the summer.”

The airline canceled more than 300 flights in early April, a week after bad weather in Florida kicked off hundreds of flight cancellations and delays on JetBlue and other carriers.

Alaska Airlines last week said it would trim its schedule two per cent through the end of June to handle a pilot shortage after canceling dozens of flights earlier in the month because of staffing shortages.

“We’ve recently let down some of our valued guests by canceling an unusual number of flights,” Alaska said. “The primary cause of cancellations is the shortage of pilots available to fly versus what was planned when we built our April schedule in January.”

FlightAware, a real-time flights’ tracking platform, on Wednesday, reported the cancellation of 1,512 flights globally.

More than 1,140 flights were grounded at Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester and Birmingham during the Easter getaway – with EasyJet and British Airways both cutting 60 and 98 flights respectively in a single day.

Airlines are scrambling to staff up to handle a surge in travellers this spring and summer.

Managing Director of Aviation Recruitment Network, Kully Sandhu, intoned that it could be up to 12 months “before we see staffing at airports back to pre-pandemic levels.”

“Recruitment for people at airports takes longer than roles elsewhere because of necessary, additional security and background checks. Routine recruitment campaigns ground to halt during the pandemic and have been slow to start again as international travel has had several restrictions on it until recently. That means the recruitment pipeline was cut off and needs to be re-established.

“Aviation has lost its appeal, not only for returners but also for people who have never worked in an airport environment before.”

Chief Executive Officer of Finchglow Holdings, Bankole Bernard, said the development was not unexpected as the post-pandemic era rallies back to its peak.

Bernard said the emerging vacancies are opportunities for Nigerians that are already trained, and “a lot more could have readily fit in if we had paid more attention to knowledge acquisition.

“We have good hands in Nigeria as it were. They are all gaining jobs outside the country now. Employers know that number one, they come cheap; again because our naira is weak. Number two, they have been well-trained. But we can do more. The government needs to strengthen training institutes in aviation. If they are well recognised, awareness is created around this, then you will see the industry boom more than what it is,” Bernard said.

Chief executive of Red Savannah Luxury Travel, George Morgan-Grenville, described it as an unfortunate perfect storm and airlines and airports are trying to ramp up again after the pandemic.

At the World Travel and Tourism Council’s summit in Manila in the Philippines, Paul Charles, of travel consultancy, The PC Agency, suggested disruption could last many months.

“COVID-19 travel restrictions have brought about the destruction of talent through job losses. BA is only recruiting staff who already have security passes. The airline’s planners believe there is a maximum number of people they feel they will recruit. Therefore, it has to cut back on frequency now based on its expected level of recruitment.

“It is readjusting to give as much notice as it can before it’s inevitable that they have to cancel those flights anyway. It is responding to concerns expressed by their customers and Government ministers about the lack of notice given to consumers.”