Airlines and airports are under growing pressure to avoid another wave of global travel disruption, as booming demand for flying puts new strain on a system that buckled over the past 12 months.
Industry bosses are confident a combination of extra resources and some caps on capacity mean last summer’s chaotic scenes that marred the return to mass travel after pandemic-related interruptions will be avoided.
But they still expect pockets of disruption during peak seasons as a lack of experienced staff and the pile-up of bookings weigh on a system that remains fragile.
“Everyone had their fingers burnt during the summer. I think it is in everyone’s interest we improve,” said Jozsef Varadi, chief executive of Europe’s Wizz Air.
Some companies have chosen to impose limits on passenger numbers to protect their operations during peak periods.
Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport still has a cap on passenger numbers in place, and has asked airlines to cut ticket sales by 5 per cent on busy mornings during holidays in May.
London’s Heathrow will stop airlines adding extra flights during the summer peak, while German carrier Lufthansa has cut some planned flights because of staff shortages, according to German media reports.
The chief executive of British Airways owner IAG said he was “worried” about capacity at Heathrow this summer, as he pushed companies operating at the airport to ensure they were properly staffed.
Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye also warned that the industry still needed more experienced staff to cope, although he was confident major disruption at the airport would be avoided.
Staff numbers at the 400 companies that work across Heathrow have recovered to about 75,000 people, up from 50,000 at the height of the pandemic, but still 2,000 fewer than in 2019.
“We are aiming to have more than 77,000 for the summer because people don’t have the same levels of skills and efficiency than pre-pandemic,” he said.
A survey conducted in October by airline trade body Iata found a skills gap “across the board”, while unions believe the industry has done little to make jobs more attractive to help retain staff when they join.
The biggest lesson from last year’s chaos is the need to build in greater operational resilience, including having more planes and staff on standby as a buffer against delays spiralling out of control, senior executives said.
United Airlines chief executive Scott Kirby warned last month that some US carriers were selling tickets for flights they would not be able to operate.
He said his airline was instead flying its schedule with up to 10 per cent more staff on duty and 25 per cent more spare aircraft.
In Europe, Wizz Air will also have more planes and crew on standby this summer, while pilots and cabin crew will be rostered to work fewer hours per shift to ensure they can stay within legal rules on overtime if there are problems, Varadi said.
Such measures in effect unwind some of the industry’s race towards lowering operational costs. But Kirby said this would be more than offset by avoiding “the otherwise inevitable operational meltdowns”.
“You can’t run your airline like it’s 2019, or you will fail,” he added.
The US is already in the middle of its worst winter of disruption in a decade.
The US aviation system is “fragile”, as demand for travel outstrips seats on flights, said Delta Air Lines chief executive Ed Bastian. But he said hiring was “strong” at the Atlanta carrier, and that training for new employees would finish before the busy summer season.
“Demand [in 2022] clearly exceeded our ability to supply it for lots of ways,” he said. “We all in the industry owe it to our customers to make sure we don’t fly in excess of our capabilities.”
Last year’s disruption also showed how every flight relies on an intricate web of companies, and that one weakness can cause disruption to cascade.
European airlines spent the quieter winter scrutinising their supply chains, notably companies that provide services such as refuelling, check-in and baggage handling.
“We should not be complacent but it certainly looks a lot better,” said easyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren.
Despite the industry rush to get its own operations in order, senior executives warned they would be essentially helpless to cope with the biggest possible risk: air traffic control delays.
Eurocontrol, Europe’s air traffic control body, has warned of “major disruption”, in part because the skies are more congested than normal following the closure of Ukrainian and Russian airspace.
It takes about three years to train an air traffic controller, meaning rehiring after the pandemic is a slow process.
Varadi laughed when asked if he was confident that the summer would pass smoothly in Europe “No, I am not,” he replied, pointing to air traffic concerns.
US airline JetBlue said it has adopted a more “conservative” operational approach because of the number of air traffic control delays it faced, including bringing in more “out-and-back flights” to reduce the disruption if a flight is cancelled, and scheduling more flights where crews are based.
After three years of border restrictions and travel meltdowns, industry bosses hope that 2023 will generate fewer headlines.
“It just needs a year of boring predictability to get people confident again,” Edinburgh airport’s chief executive Gordon Dewer told an industry conference. “We need to perform consistently well in a boring way.”