Pilots describe toxic culture and airline mistakes

Pilots describe toxic culture and airline mistakes

The chaos that has engulfed many major airports in North America and Europe since the start of the summer has not abated much, with news agencies and social media users continuing to report hordes of impatient travelers and mountains of misplaced suitcases.

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Canceled flights. Long queues. Employee trips. Lost luggage.

Sound familiar? The chaos that has gripped many major airports in North America and Europe since the summer has not abated much, with news agencies and social media users continuing to report hordes of impatient travelers and mountains of misplaced suitcases.

Just this week, German airline Lufthansa canceled almost all of its flights to Frankfurt and Munich, stranding around 130,000 travelers because of a one-day walkout by ground workers striking for better pay.

London Heathrow Airport and Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, two of Europe’s biggest tourist hubs, reduced passenger capacity and required airlines to stop flights to and from the airports, angering both travelers and airline executives.

Carriers in the US have also canceled and delayed tens of thousands of flights due to staff shortages and weather issues.

Airlines loudly blame airports and governments. On Monday, the CFO of European low-cost airline Ryanair, Neil Sorahan, complained that airports “have one job”.

Unclaimed suitcases at Heathrow Airport. Britain’s biggest airport has ordered airlines to stop selling summer tickets.

Paul Ellis | Afp | Getty Images

But many in the industry say the airlines are also partly to blame for the staff shortage, and the situation is becoming dire enough to threaten safety.

CNBC spoke with several pilots who fly with the major airlines, all of whom described fatigue from long hours and what they say is opportunism and a desire to cut costs as part of a toxic “race to the bottom” culture that is pervading the industry and making the mess worse. the situation travelers face today.

All airline employees spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

“Absolute Carnage”

“From a passenger perspective, it’s an absolute nightmare,” a pilot for European low-cost airline easyJet told CNBC.

“Going into the summer, it was absolute carnage because the airlines didn’t know what they were doing. They didn’t have a proper plan. All they knew they wanted to do was try to fly as much as possible — almost as if the pandemic never happened,” the pilot said.

“But they forgot that they had reduced all their resources.”

The resulting imbalance has “made our lives an absolute mess, both for cabin crew and pilots,” the pilot added, explaining how there has been a shortage of staff on the ground — those handling baggage, check-in, security and more — since the Covid pandemic unleashed layoffs. created a domino effect that puts a wrench in flight schedules.

A bit of a toxic soup … airports and airlines equally to blame.

EasyJet said in a statement that the health and well-being of its employees was “our highest priority”, stressing that “we take our responsibilities as an employer very seriously and employ our staff on local contracts on competitive terms and in accordance with local law.”.

The industry is now hampered by a number of factors: insufficient resources for retraining, former workers reluctant to return and poor pay, which has been largely suppressed since pandemic-era cuts despite significantly improved airline revenues.

“They’ve told us pilots that we’re taking a pay cut until at least 2030, except that all the drivers are back on full pay and pay increases in line with inflation,” said the British Airways pilot.

“The various governments with their restrictions and no support for the aviation industry” as well as airport companies are largely to blame for the current chaos, the pilot said, adding. that “some airlines took advantage of the situation to cut wages, sign new contracts and lay off people, and now that everything is back to normal, they cannot cope.”

While many airports and airlines are now hiring and offering better pay, the required training programs and security clearance handlers have also been significantly reduced and overburdened, further disrupting the industry.

“They are shocked which is unbelievable”

Ground staff at British Airways were due to strike in August over the fact that they have still not been restored to full pay – particularly poignant at a time when the chief executive of BA’s parent company IAG was awarded a gross living allowance of 250,000 pounds ($303,000). for the year.

But this week, the airline and the workers’ union agreed on a pay increase to call off a planned strike, although some workers say it’s still not a full return to pre-pandemic pay.

Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images

British Airways said in a statement: “The last two years have been devastating for the entire aviation industry. We took steps to restructure our business to survive and save jobs.”

The company also said that “the majority of layoffs during this time period were voluntary.”

“We are fully focused on building our operational resilience to give customers the confidence they deserve,” the airline said.

IAG chief executive Luis Gallego, which owns BA, lost a £900,000 bonus in 2021 and took a voluntary pay cut in 2020 and 2021, and did not receive a 2020 bonus.

They just want the cheapest labor to make their big bonuses and keep the shareholders happy.

One pilot who flew with Dubai’s flagship airline, Emirates Airline, said the short-term thinking that workers took for granted over the years had laid the foundation for today’s situation.

Airlines “happily tried to cut wages for a lot of people in the industry for years, assuming nobody had anywhere else to go,” the pilot said. “And now when people exercise their right to go somewhere else, they’re shocked, which is unbelievable. I’m shocked that they’re shocked.”

A security risk?

All the pilots interviewed by CNBC said all this stress on airline staff is on top of the often-overlooked problem of pilot fatigue.

The statutory maximum pilot flight time limit is 900 hours per year. But for many airlines, “it wasn’t seen as an absolute peak, it was seen as a goal to try and make everyone’s workload as efficient as possible”, said an easyJet pilot.

“Our biggest concern is that we have a pretty toxic culture and an excessive workload,” echoed an Emirates pilot. “All of this together potentially reduces the margin of safety. And that’s a big concern.”

All this is compounded by low pay and less attractive contracts, say pilots, many of whom were rehired when the pandemic turned air travel on its head.

“A bit of a toxic soup of all of them, the airports and the airlines share the same level of blame. It’s been a race to the bottom for years,” said the Emirates pilot. “They’re only ever going to try to pay as little as they can.”

A spokesman for Emirates Airline said: “We would never compromise on safety at Emirates and there are strict regulatory requirements for rest and flight hours that we adhere to for our cabin crew. Our safety record in the air and on the ground is: one of the best in the industry. “

They added: “We continue to recruit and retain our flight crew with competitive packages, career development and other generous benefits.”

“Race to the Bottom”

“Crony capitalists. Rat race to the bottom. No respect for skilled labor now,” the BA pilot said of the corporate management of the industry. “They just want the cheapest labor to produce their big bonuses and keep the shareholders happy.”

The International Air Transport Association responded to the criticism by saying that “the airline industry is increasing resources as quickly as possible to meet the needs of travelers safely and efficiently.” It admitted that “there is no doubt that this is a difficult time for workers in the industry, especially where they are in short supply.”

The trade group has issued recommendations “to attract and retain talent in the groundhandling industry” and said in a statement that “providing additional resources where there are gaps is one of the top priorities of industry management teams around the world”.

“And in the meantime,” it added, “the patience of travelers.”

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