Air travel chaos begins to ease but is there more trouble on the horizon?

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As the pandemic entered its third summer, airline bookings roared back as consumers planned long-awaited trips after years of staying put — but the industry was not ready.

Air travel on both sides of the Atlantic has been in disarray this summer. From the start of May to mid-August, a quarter of flights into, out of, or within the US, UK and Europe were disrupted — delayed or cancelled — as airlines struggled to scale up operations to meet soaring demand, while labour shortages ranged from pilots to cabin crew, ground staff and air traffic controllers.

The situation has finally begun to improve in the UK and Europe, after busy airports imposed unprecedented caps on passenger numbers and airlines slashed their summer schedules. An industry-wide hiring drive also brought in more staff.

In the first half of August, 29 per cent of flights into, out of, or within the UK were delayed or cancelled, down from about 35 per cent in June and July, according to a Financial Times analysis of data from flight tracker FlightAware.

A quarter of the 480,000 flights into, out of, or within Europe scheduled for the first 17 days of August were disrupted, down from 29 per cent for July.

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“We obviously have different challenges in different markets, but overall the UK is by far the worst,” said Warwick Brady, chief executive of Swissport, one of the world’s largest ground handling companies.

Brady pointed to factors including travel restrictions and difficulties hiring workers following Brexit.

Heathrow, the UK’s busiest airport, this week extended an unprecedented cap on passenger numbers until the end of October to make sure its operations can cope, blaming staff shortages at ground handling companies employed by airlines.

In the US, a blame game has played out between airlines and the federal government.

Most US carriers have reduced their schedules for the rest of the year. Delta cut 100 daily flights during a five-week period in July and the start of August, while United Airlines has committed to flying less until aviation infrastructure improves.

“The whole system is strained,” said United chief executive Scott Kirby. “There’s tight staffing everywhere . . . that is the reason we’re pulling our capacity down and waiting to grow until the whole system catches up.”

US airlines hit peak disruption in June, when nearly 26 per cent of flights were disrupted, a figure that fell slightly in July and the first half of August.

In June, American Airlines was the “big four” airline with the most cancellations, at 5 per cent of flights cancelled. Southwest Airlines has had the most delays for the May, June and July period.

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In the US, disruption has been worse in every month of the year than it was in 2019, even though airlines have been flying less.

“We didn’t do as good as we could,” Delta chief executive Ed Bastian told the FT about the carrier’s struggles to meet demand in June, with difficulties compounded by bad weather and air traffic control delays.

Delta’s disruptions have decreased — falling from 24 per cent in June to 20 per cent in the first half of August — but “Europe is different”, Bastian said.

“When the pandemic hit, its governments weren’t there for them. As we look back, and we’re very fortunate, the US government came in with the [Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security] Act early on and enabled us to keep our employees in place. The airport employees were able to stay engaged.”

US carriers received roughly $54bn of government support that was aimed at keeping airline employees on the payroll. They were also less affected by travel restrictions because their domestic flight market is so much larger.

Some European governments offered airlines financial support but there were still significant lay-offs by airlines, airports and ground handlers.

Disruption rates in Europe stayed below 2019 levels until flight numbers started to increase in April this year, when they shot up to 18 per cent, from 12 per cent in March. Rates hit close to 30 per cent in July.

Akbar Al Baker, chief executive of Qatar Airways, told the FT in July that disruption in European airports had reached “epidemic” levels, and the industry could take a “couple” of years to recover.

There could also be more trouble brewing.

“We must confront three risks that could grow over the next six to 18 months,” said Kirby, referring to “industry-wide operational challenges that limit the system’s capacity, record fuel prices and the increasing possibility of a global recession”.

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