Pilots describe toxic airline culture and mistakes

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

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Canceled flights. Long lines. Exit of personnel. No luggage.

Sound familiar? The chaos that has engulfed many major airports in North America and Europe since the summer has not abated, with media and social media users continuing to report crowds of impatient travelers and mountains of lost suitcases.

German carrier Lufthansa canceled nearly all of its flights in Frankfurt and Munich this week alone, stranding around 130,000 travelers due to a one-day layoff by ground staff who were on strike for higher pay.

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

US carriers have also canceled and delayed tens of thousands of flights due to staff shortages and weather conditions.

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

Unclaimed suitcases at Heathrow Airport. Britain’s largest 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 responsible for the understaffing, and the situation is becoming so dire it could threaten safety.

CNBC spoke with several pilots at major airlines, all of whom described fatigue from long hours and what they said was opportunism and a desire to cut costs as part of a toxic “race to the bottom” culture that is permeating the industry and worsening the mess. situation faced by travelers today.

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

“Absolute Carnage”

“From a passenger’s point of view, it’s an absolute nightmare,” a pilot for European budget carrier easyJet told CNBC.

“At the beginning of the summer it was a real massacre 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 flight attendants and pilots,” the pilot added, explaining how there has been a shortage of ground staff following layoffs due to the Covid pandemic — those who deal with baggage, check-in, security and more. created a domino effect that throws a wrench into flight schedules.

A bit of a toxic soup… airports and airlines share equal blame.

In a statement, easyJet said the health and wellbeing of employees is “our highest priority”, stressing that “we take our responsibilities as an employer very seriously and employ our people on local contracts on competitive terms and in accordance with local law. .”

The industry is currently being held back by a combination of factors: a lack of resources for retraining, former staff reluctant to return and low wages, which have largely remained low after pandemic-era cuts despite a significant increase in airline revenues.

“They have told us pilots that we will have a pay cut until at least 2030, except that all managers will go back to full pay plus a pay rise due to inflation,” said a British Airways pilot.

“Different governments with their restrictions and lack of support for the aviation sector” 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 salaries, sign new contracts and lay off people, and now that things are back to normal, they can’t cope.”

While many airports and airlines are now recruiting and offering better pay, the required training programs and security screening processors are also being severely cut and overburdened, further hampering the sector.

“They are shocked, it’s unbelievable”

British Airways ground staff were set to go on strike in August because they had not yet been restored to full pay. It was particularly galling at a time when the CEO of BA’s parent company, IAG, received a £250,000 ($303,000) living allowance. in a year.

But this week the airline and the workers’ union agreed on a pay rise to cancel a planned strike, although some workers say it is not yet a full return to pre-pandemic pay.

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

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

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

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

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

One pilot at Dubai’s flagship airline, Emirates Airline, said a short-term mindset that took workers for granted laid the foundation for today’s situation over the years.

“The airlines have been happy for years to cut the wages of a lot of people in the industry, assuming there was nowhere else to go,” the pilot said. “And now when people exercise their right to go somewhere else, they are shocked, which is unbelievable. I’m shocked that they’re shocked.”

A security risk?

All of this stress on airline staff is compounded by the often-overlooked issue of pilot fatigue, say all the pilots interviewed by CNBC.

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

“The biggest concern is that we have a pretty toxic culture, an inordinate amount of work,” the Emirates pilot echoed. “All this leads to a potential decrease in the margin of safety. And that’s a big concern.”

All of this is combined with low pay and less attractive contracts, pilots say, many of which were rewritten when the pandemic turned air travel upside down.

“A bit of a toxic soup out of it all, airports and airlines share equal blame. It’s been a race to the bottom for years,” said the Emirates pilot. “They will try to pay as little as they can.”

An Emirates Airline spokesperson said: “We will never compromise on safety at Emirates and there are strict regulatory requirements regarding rest and flying hours that we adhere to for our operational 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 through competitive packages, promotions and other generous benefits.”

“Race to the Bottom”

“Crane capitalists. Rat race to the bottom. There is no respect for the skilled workforce now,” the BA pilot said of the industry’s corporate leadership. “They just want to get the cheapest labor to get their own big bonuses and keep the shareholders happy.”

In response to this criticism, the International Air Transport Association stated that “the air travel industry is ramping up resources as quickly as possible to meet the needs of travelers safely and efficiently.” It acknowledges that “there is no doubt that these are difficult times for workers in the industry, especially where there are shortages.”

The trade group issued guidance “on attracting and retaining talent in the groundhandling sector” and said in a statement that “providing additional resources where there are gaps is a top priority for industry management teams around the world”.

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

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