LONDON, U.K. (THE INDEPENDENT) — For many in the UK, a spring or summer holiday has become a “fingers crossed” prospect rather than a sure thing. As anyone who has a flight booked in the coming weeks will know, the fear of a last-minute cancellation is ever-present.

Several airlines have been making daily cuts to their schedules as we move into summer 2022 - some by culling dozens of departures weeks in advance, others by axing them hours before or even once passengers have boarded. It’s not as large-scale as the individual numbers may seem - the Financial Times recently reported that between 2 and 4 per cent of UK flights were cancelled during the first week of May. But when the cancellations continued into June, transport secretary Grant Shapps accused airlines and tour operators of “seriously [overselling] flights and holidays” beyond the capacity they could handle. So why is this happening, and what are airline executives planning to do about it?

Here’s everything you need to know.

Which airlines have been cancelling flights?

In terms of regular, daily cancellations, easyJet and British Airways are the two main culprits - but Wizz Air, Tui and KLM have also axed multiple departures. EasyJet has been cancelling around 30-60 flights per day, with some scrapped in advance, but others cut just hours before they were due to operate. Many Independent readers have reported receiving emails overnight for a morning or early afternoon flight they were due to take in the following hours. British Airways has been cutting far more - more like 120-150 per day - but in most cases this was done weeks in advance with customers informed earlier on. Meanwhile, Wizz Air started spring slightly more robustly, but recently announced the cancellation of “a large number of flights” from Doncaster Sheffield Airport from 10 June onwards, as well as making several ad hoc last-minute cancellations from UK airports during June. At the end of May, Tui made major cuts to its schedule of flights from Manchester Airport, cancelling 186 flights from 31 May to 30 June.

What reasons have airlines given for the cancellations?

Airline bosses have given a range of reasons for the cancellations and cuts to their schedules, but the overwhelming one is a shortage of staff. Collectively, UK airlines cut about 30,000 jobs during the Covid-19 pandemic, when the travel shutdown and strict UK travel restrictions prevented the majority of flights from operating. Now they are trying to “scale up” by recruiting new staff, but for many, it hasn’t happened quickly enough.

Oliver Richardson of the Unite union says: “When you look at who is performing worst, it correlates with the companies that carried out the most redundancies.

“Ryanair agreed on no redundancies and a different position was taken by British Airways who lost 10,000 staff through redundancies. They got rid of too many people.”

Ryanair has largely operated its planned schedule during spring and summer. Several airline bosses have hinted that delays in getting new staff approved have meant not enough crew on hand to operate their full planned schedules. At a Business, Energy and Industrial Select Committee session on the subject, easyJet’s chief commercial officer Sophie Dekker blamed a range of factors for the airline’s cancellations, saying that delays arranging ID passes for new crew members was part of the problem.

“It’s taking about 14 weeks now to get crew ID passes,” said Ms Dekkers. “It was around 10 weeks pre-pandemic. The ID processing has caught us by surprise.”

She also attributed the cancellations to a lack of staff in general, technology issues and - a small amount - to Air Traffic Control problems at easyJet’s airports.

Giving the example of Monday 13 June, she said: “We operated 1,678 flights. Ten were cancelled on the day. Two of those were due to crew. Two were due to air-traffic control and six were due to tech.” British Airways, which has also made substantial cuts to its schedule, has attributed the cancellations only to “staff absences and sickness,” with some of these understood to be caused by crew testing positive for Covid-19. The airline’s chief corporate affairs and sustainability director, Lisa Tremble, said at the BEIS session “we know we’ve got a lot of work to do”.

“There’s been a lot written about fire and rehire. We completely want our people to feel like they are part of building this airline,” said Ms Tremble.

“We completely accept that what’s happened over the last two years has put us in a position where we need to build that relationship of trust with our unions and with our people.

“This year we’ve offered our people a 10 per cent pay award.

“When you’ve been through a very traumatic period like we have, it takes time to rebuild the trust and those relationships. That’s what we’re determined to do but it will take some time to do that.”

Each recruit working “airside” for a UK airline needs to be referenced and approved by both the Civil Aviation Authority and the government, a process which some airline bosses are saying is taking longer in 2022 than previous years. Several airline sources have said the process is taking up to 14 weeks.

Wizz Air told The Independent: “Amongst other issues causing operational instability throughout the travel industry, there is a widespread shortage in staff, in particular within air traffic control, ground operations and baggage handling, security and across airports.”

The airline said the vast majority of its flights are operating as planned, and that it has increased communication with passengers as well as trying to make an essential cancellations as early as possible.
Meanwhile, unions have said that many potential recruits have been put off by poor working conditions in the travel industry - Unite’s general secretary, Sharon Graham, said: “The sector is suffering from a chronic inability to attract new staff because workers are not attracted to an industry where pay is poor and conditions are lousy.” 

Other airline insiders have pointed to operational issues at the UK’s airports for certain cancellations, especially those towards the end of the day.

What part do airports play in the cancellations?

The UK’s airports have experienced their own staff shortages this spring, as have private companies running operations - such as baggage handling - within them. The shortages have affected both ground staff and, according to some sources, air traffic control. Gatwick Airport has had some of the highest numbers cancellations this spring - as well as being easyJet’s base, industry sources have suggested that Gatwick is experiencing operational issues of its own. A senior aviation industry source told The Times that the West Sussex airport - the second busiest in the UK - does not have the staffing resources to cope with the current flight schedule.

“Since the start of the summer we’ve seen repeated issues in terms of air traffic control restrictions coming into Gatwick,” said the source.

“The airport is putting restrictions on movements per hour, below its declared capacity, because of a shortage of air traffic controllers in the approach control function.”

They went on to say that, while Gatwick typically handles around 52 “movements” in an hour, including departures and arrivals. At some points last week, they claim, this number had been reduced to 22 an hour. Gatwick has now preemptively said it will put a cap on operations this summer to ensure things run more smoothly, taking the maximum number of daily arrivals and departures from 900 to 825 in July and 850 in August. On the busiest days, airlines will be told to cancel up to 50 flights – requiring thousands of passengers already booked on them to find alternative departures. Luton Airport has also had a number of daily cancellations, as has Bristol (with a smaller number from Glasgow and Edinburgh). Meanwhile, the bulk of BA’s advance cancellations are domestic and short-haul flights from Heathrow. Wizz Air’s advance cuts to its schedule have been attributed to an operational dispute with Doncaster Sheffield, with bosses saying it is “a result of Doncaster Sheffield Airport indicating that it is unable to guarantee the terms of its commercial agreement with Wizz Air”. Tui’s hundreds of Manchester flights were blamed on ‘ongoing disruption’ at Manchester Airport.

Other aviation sources have pointed to Air Traffic Control issues elsewhere in Europe as a cause of delays and subsequent cancellations - France has experienced issues after installing a new ATC system at its Reims control centre in April, meaning air traffic over the country has been reduced. Moreover, some of the flights that would usually cross France have been rerouted over Germany, causing congestion with its own ATC network. Delays caused by air traffic control and staff shortages can lead to eventual cancellations: for example, some flights have been held before take off for several hours due to the former factors, meaning they would land at a European airport too late, with the airport unable to receive them after the set curfew. There’s a certain amount of knock-on effect.

What are airlines and ministers doing to fix this?

In recent weeks, airlines have blamed the government, while government has blamed airlines and other travel firms. The aviation industry says the UK government’s sudden end to all travel restrictions in February - following years of complex travel restrictions and much back-and-forth on where travel was permitted - didn’t give them adequate time to plan and scale up appropriately for summer. In turn, ministers say the aviation industry has had plenty of notice and should have been better prepared for the influx of holidaymakers - or simply not sold as many flights, if they couldn’t deliver on them. Earlier this month, the Department for Transport and Civil Aviation Authority wrote an open letter to aviation bosses setting out five “specific expectations” for the sector.

These included airlines looking closely at their proposed summer schedules and making sure they can operate them in full; making cuts to those schedules if necessary, but weeks in advance rather than at the last minute; and ensuring “sufficiently staffed call centres and user-friendly digital channels” in case of cancellations. EasyJet’s cancellations will certainly continue: the carrier has announced hundreds more services will be cut over the summer and has cancelled all flights from the UK to Hurghada until the end of July, saying: “We are informing customers in advance to minimise the impact on their plans.”
It also announced around 40 flight cancellations per day between now and the end of June.

Chief operating officer Peter Bellew said: “Making these cancellations is not something we take lightly but what’s worse is to cancel our customers’ plans on the day that they are ready to fly." Regarding slow crew referencing, in April aviation minister Robert Courts said “we are looking at ways to help industry speed up job reference checks” by “using our post-Brexit freedoms.”

Is Brexit to blame?

Some airline bosses, such as Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary and David Burling of Tui, have pointed to Brexit, saying UK airlines lost European staff after the transition and are now unable to recruit from within the EU. There may also be an element of redundant airline staff moving into other service and hospitality roles, and not returning to aviation this year.

The Independent’s travel correspondent Simon Calder says: “[Prior to Brexit] Far more Europeans worked in hospitality here than in aviation. A large proportion of them also left the UK. And that created a vast array of vacancies.

“Many excellent British aviation professionals, furloughed for many months [in the pandemic] and uncertain if their jobs would ever return, ’backfilled’ those roles. They are unlikely to be lured back to a high-stress role with unsocial hours.”

At a recent Business Select Committee session the aviation minister, Robert Courts, said it was “unlikely” that Brexit was partly responsible for the labour shortage which has led to disruption.

“On the evidence that we have it looks as though Brexit has not been a significant factor. I don’t think that talent pool is there,” he said.

Other European countries have also experienced disruption in recent months - the Netherlands’ Schiphol Airport and its flagship airline KLM have been two of the worst affected, along with Dublin Airport.