Airlines canceled around 60 flights to or from Dublin Airport over eight days from June 22-29, disrupting thousands of passengers planning to fly to or from the Republic. Irish carrier Aer Lingus was responsible for around half of the total due to a well-documented outbreak of Covid-19 among crew.
The company maintains that the passengers have been relocated as quickly as possible, either on Aer Lingus flights, or on services provided by others within the International Airlines Group, of which it is part with British Airways, or on carriers outside of this organization. He also pointed out that almost 99% of his scheduled flights in June took off despite the Covid problem.
Aer Lingus was by no means the only airline to drop flights during this period. Exactly one year after the EU reopened on July 1, 2021, industry is creaking under the double weight of high demand and labor shortages.
Big names in the industry – including American Airlines, British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa and its low-cost subsidiary Eurowings and United Airlines – dropped services from Dublin during the eight-day period. All blame a similar set of problems.
The airlines who commented did not specify how many passengers were affected, but estimates range up to 12,000. KLM blamed weather conditions and a “shortage of hub staff” for the cancellation of flights from Amsterdam on June 24, 27 and 28. Amsterdam Schiphol is one of many major European airports where bottlenecks have forced airlines to cut services.
Airport problems are a recurring theme. Eurowings cited problems with baggage screening and police background checks on new staff slowing the recruitment of airport workers among the reasons for its cancellation of Dusseldorf and Cologne services last week.
The German carrier has also blamed the strike by French air traffic controllers last weekend, an issue that Irish group Ryanair has also blamed for forcing it to cut flights to Milan and Brussels.
United Airlines blamed a technical problem with an aircraft and an “unexpected operational problem” for scrapping flights to Newark, New Jersey on Thursday last week and Monday. American Airlines gave no reason to cancel service from Dallas and Chicago, but confirmed it had.
Lufthansa gave no reason to cancel flights from Munich and Frankfurt last Friday and Monday. However, spokesman Boris Ogursky said air traffic control strikes and increased Covid absences have put further strain on the system.
“More generally, the entire aeronautical industry, especially in Europe, is currently suffering from bottlenecks and shortages of personnel,” he explains. The German company has cut 900 flights from its July schedule. The airline had already canceled 2,200 flights from Frankfurt and Munich for the whole summer.
The problem is more widespread than in Ireland or Europe. Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau recently wrote to customers saying the carrier intended to cancel some scheduled flights in July and August to reduce passenger numbers to a level “that the system of air transport can accommodate”.
Rousseau says people are flying at a rate never seen in the industry. “This increase in travel has created unprecedented and unforeseen strains on all aspects of the global aviation system,” he adds.
The airline says the cuts will largely apply to domestic flights to and from its hubs in Toronto and Montreal. They will not affect international services, although a spokesperson said Air Canada may change the schedules of some of these services to avoid peaks and “even out” passenger flows. However, he said the plans will not affect Dublin Airport.
This airline did not cancel any flights in Dublin last week, but was part of a group, Airlines for America, which wrote to the government warning of the impact of bottlenecks at the airport Irish. The letter from his chief executive shows that his problems are rooted more in his home territory than in anything that happened at the Irish Gateway.
Ultimately, airlines and airports are grappling with two things: an increase in the number of people flying, many for the first time since 2019; and difficulties at all levels – among carriers, airports, ground handling companies, caterers, etc. – to hire enough people to deal with that.
Eurowings emphasizes in its press release that everything must run “smoothly” for air transport to work. This means planes land and take off on time, ground handlers quickly handle baggage, refueling and other services, and passengers get through airports without delay.
An Irish source echoes this, explaining that a problem in one place can have repercussions in another. A delay in an aircraft taking off from one location may result in a delay in leaving that destination if it is flying elsewhere. Normally, airline networks can absorb this with little disruption, but, as the source points out, “the system is now very strained.” Therefore, even everyday problems can cause major upheavals.
Both Aer Lingus and Air Canada stress that they built what they believed to be “appropriate buffers” into their plans to deal with reasonable levels of delays and problems. However, neither had anticipated the increased demand or recruitment difficulties in the industry.
As all of this unfolded last week, the government was discussing a contingency plan to allow soldiers to man some security posts at Dublin Airport to ensure there would be enough staff to manage the growing ranks of passengers.
A month ago Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Defense Minister Simon Coveney ruled out the use of the Defense Force for Dublin Airport security. However, the government agreed to a request from Transport Minister Eamon Ryan and Minister of State for the Department for Transport Hildegarde Naughton this week, strictly on the grounds that it is a contingency on which the airport cannot can appeal only during the six weeks until August. 15th.
If called, unarmed soldiers will occupy the entry points for fuel, cargo and other vehicles that regularly service the airport, allowing up to 100 security guards who normally perform this job to cover the safety routes. Defense Force personnel will not attend to passengers.
So far Dublin Airport has avoided this and is committed to taking all necessary steps to ensure this does not happen (although it cannot control what happens elsewhere). Since the last Sunday in May, when roster confusion and surprisingly high absences among security personnel caused 1,000 passengers to miss flights, DAA says the steps it has taken ensure that most of people pass the control in less than 45 minutes.
The DAA continues to recruit security personnel, aiming to have a full complement of 920 before the Defense Force contingency is no longer required by mid-August. He also indicates that he has multiple applications for each position, so the problem comes down to quick recruitment. Along with the rest of Irish industry, it has agreed a system with An Garda Síochána to manage the additional security background checks for new employees that the government introduced this year, reducing a backlog in hiring new workers.
None of the airlines contacted blamed a problem on the Irish airport for its decision to cancel flights. All maintain that the passengers have been relocated as quickly as possible. European carriers are required to inform distraught customers of their rights under EU law, which include re-routing and refunds, which must be paid in cash.
However, it is clear that the industry’s general problems are not going away any time soon. During Covid, virtually every area of business across the world let people go, blocked recruitment or simply saw staff leave for better paying jobs. Replacing them quickly is now a challenge.
When DAA chief executive Dalton Philips faced the Oireachtas Joint Transport Committee last month, politicians and a few journalists demanded to know why the company didn’t see this coming. Few in the industry have done so.
In a report last October, Eurocontrol, a European organization of air traffic control agencies, predicted in its “best case” that flights would return to 89% of 2019 levels by next year, before to continue to grow beyond. In its darkest scenario, Eurocontrol said air travel would not return to normal until 2027.
Most airline organizations had similar views that passenger numbers would reach 2019 levels in or around 2024. Irish group Ryanair was more optimistic. Last year it said traffic in 2022 across Europe would be around 90% of 2019, with growth returning in 2023.
This might turn out to be closer to reality. While flights are booming, the Omicron strain of Covid and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February both slowed bookings in the first months of the year. In fact, it wasn’t until March or April that air travel took off – something many have forgotten – so the current boom has to be balanced against that slow start.
These predictions also highlighted that Irish air travel appeared to be lagging behind the rest of Europe. Even though the EU reopened a year ago, the government persisted with strict travel restrictions until July 17. The Irish’s understandable appetite for sun holidays has proven forecasters wrong, but, like other Europeans, they could face some turbulence on the way to the beach.