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A toxic culture and ‘race to the bottom’: Pilots open up on why air travel is in chaos

Since summer began, chaos has engulfed many major North American and European airports. News outlets and social media users continue reporting on the hordes and mountains of lost suitcases and impatient travelers.

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Cancelled flights Long lines. Staff leave. Missing luggage. 

Are you feeling the same? Do you feel like this?

Lufthansa, a German carrier, cancelled nearly all of its flights in Frankfurt or Munich this week due to a one day walkout by its ground crew, who were on strike for better wages.  

London’s Heathrow Airport and Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport — two of the largest travel hubs in Europe —slashed their passenger capacity and demanded that airlines cut flights in and out of their airports, which angered both travelers and airline managers.

American airlines have also had to cancel or delay tens of thousands flights because of staff shortages or weather issues. 

Airlines are vocally blaming airports and governments. Neil Sorahan (chief financial officer of Ryanair low-cost European carrier) complained on Monday that airports had “one job to do.”

Heathrow Airport has not received uncollected luggage. The U.K.’s largest airport has instructed airlines to stop selling summer travel tickets.

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Many in the industry believe that airlines are partially responsible for staff shortages, and that the situation is becoming so dire that it could threaten safety. 

CNBC spoke to pilots working for major airlines. All of them described fatigue due to long hours, opportunism, and a desire cut costs as part a toxic “race-to-the bottom” culture that pervades the industry. This has exacerbated the difficult situation travelers find themselves in today.

Because they were not authorized to speak to journalists, all airline employees spoke anonymously.   

‘Absolute carnage’

CNBC spoke with a pilot at European low-cost carrier easyJet who said that it was “an absolute nightmare” from a passenger’s point of view. 

“Leading into the Summer, it was absolute carnage due to airlines not knowing what they were doing. They didn’t have a plan. All they knew they wanted to do was try and fly as much as humanly possible – almost as if the pandemic had never happened,” the pilot said. 

“But they forgot they’d cut all their resources.”

The ensuing imbalance has “made our life an absolute mess, both cabin crew and pilots,” the pilot added, explaining how a shortage of ground staff since the Covid pandemic layoffs — those who handle baggage, check-in, security and more — has created a domino effect that’s throwing a wrench into flying schedules.

A little bit of toxic soup… The airports and airlines share equal responsibility.

easyJet released a statement stating that the health and wellbeing of employees is “our highest priorities.” They also stressed that “we take responsibility as an employer very seriously” and that they use local contracts to hire their people on competitive terms and in compliance with local legislation.

The industry is now hampered by a number of factors, including not having enough resources to retrain, former staff not wanting the return and poor pay, which has largely remained suppressed following pandemic-era reductions, despite significantly higher revenue for airlines. 

“They’ve told us pilots we are on pay cuts until at least 2030 — except all the managers are back on full pay plus pay rises for inflation,” a pilot for British Airways said. 

The pilot stated that the current chaos is due in large part to the actions of “various governments with their restrictions on the aviation sector” and airport companies. “Some airlines took advantage of the situation and cut salaries, made new contracts, and laid people off, and now that everything is back to normal, they can’t deal.”

Many airlines and airports are now hiring and offering better pay. However, the security clearance processors and training programs are severely cut and overwhelmed, further hampering the sector.  

“They are stunned, which is amazing.”

British Airways ground staff were set to strike in August over the fact that their full pay had still not been reinstated — something especially stinging at a time when the CEO of BA’s parent company, IAG, was given a £250,000 ($303,000) gross living allowance for the year. 

However, this week the workers’ union and the airline reached an agreement on a salary hike to end the planned strike. Some staff however feel that it is still not enough to return to pre-pandemic levels.  

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British Airways released the following statement: “The past two years have been disastrous for the entire aviation industry. We took steps to restructure our business in order to survive and save jobs.

According to the company, “the vast majority (if not all) of redundancies occurring during this period were voluntary.”

“We are completely focused on building resilience into the operation to give our customers the certainty that they deserve,” the airline stated.

IAG CEO Luis Gallego, whose company owns BA, forfeited his £900,000 bonus in 2021 and took voluntary salary reductions in 2020 and 2021, and did not receive his 2020 bonus.

They want the lowest labor costs to produce big bonuses and keep shareholders satisfied.

One pilot flying for Dubai’s flagship Emirates Airline stated that a short-term mindset which took employees for granted was responsible for years of laying the foundation for today’s situation.

According to the pilot, the airlines “were happy trying to depress wages for many people in the industry for many years, on the assumption nobody had any other place to go.” “And now, people are exercising their rights to go somewhere else, they’re shocked, which is amazing. They are shocked, which is shocking.

Are you at risk of injury?

All this stress on airline staff comes on top the often ignored issue pilot fatigue, all the CNBC pilots interviewed said.

Pilots can fly up to 900 hours per annum. This is the legal maximum. However, for many airlines, this was not the absolute maximum. It was used as a target to make everyone’s workload as efficient possible, the easyJet pilot stated.

“That’s the biggest worry with us is that [we] have a fairly toxic culture, an excessive amount of work,” the Emirates pilot said. “This all adds up and could potentially reduce the safety margin. That’s a serious concern.

Pilots claim that this has been combined, they say, with low pay and less appealing contracts. Many of these were rewritten after the pandemic, which turned the tide against air travel.

“A little bit of toxic soup of all those, the airports share an equal level blame. It’s been years of a race to bottom,” said the Emirates pilot. “They will only ever try to pay as much as they can.”

Emirates Airline spokesmen stated that the airline would not compromise safety and that Emirates has strict regulations regarding rest and flying hours. Our safety record in the air and on the ground is among the best in the industry.

They also stated that they continue to recruit and retain their flying crew with competitive packages and career progression and other generous benefits.

‘Race to bottom’

“Crony capitalists. Rat race to the bottom. “No respect for skilled workforce now,” said the BA pilot about the industry’s corporate leadership. “They want the cheapest labor in order to pay their big bonuses and keep shareholders satisfied.”

The International Air Transport Association responded to these criticisms by saying that “the industry is rapidly ramping up resources to safely and efficiently satisfy the needs of travellers.” It acknowledged that “there’s no doubt that these are difficult times for the workers in the industry, particularly in places where they are short of resources.”

The trade group issued recommendations “to attract talent in the ground handling industry” and stated in a statement that “securing additional resource where there are deficiencies is one of the top priorities for industry management teams around world.”

“And in the interim,” it added, “the patient of travelers.”

Source: CNBC

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