Don’t expect great summer experience, warns airport boss

By Katy Austin

Transport correspondent

Passengers are hoping for no repeat of the long queues seen at airports over the Easter breakImage source, Getty Images

Image caption,

Passengers are hoping for no repeat of the long queues seen at airports over the Easter holiday break

The new boss of Manchester Airport has warned he cannot promise passengers a “great” experience this summer.

Managing director Chris Woodroofe told BBC News improvements have been made and he expects “the vast majority” of passengers to have a reasonable experience.

Most will “get through security in 30 minutes, get on their plane and fly away”, he said. But he admitted “there’s going to be examples where that doesn’t happen, and in advance, I’m sorry about that. That’s a terrible thing to have happened because we want everyone to get on their way.”

Manchester and Gatwick airports both told the BBC they have been working hard behind the scenes to ensure summer goes smoothly, after challenges hit the re-start of international travel.

However, they cannot promise things will be perfect, or back to a 2019 “normal” level of service.

Airlines report most passengers have made their journeys without problems.

But long queues, delays and cancellations have frustrated many thousands of would-be holidaymakers since before Easter. The sector is under pressure to improve its performance amid concerns of further disruption over the summer.

After two years of fluctuating Covid restrictions and eerily quiet check-in halls, a busy couple of months lies ahead.

At Manchester, 50,000 passengers will depart each day at what its boss calls the “super-peak” – close to 2019 levels.

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption,

Queues, delays and cancellations frustrated many thousands of travellers at Easter.

Unprecedented recruitment drive

Staff shortages have been blamed for much of the recent disruption.

Critics accuse firms of cutting too many jobs during Covid. Fast-forward two years and a very tight labour market means many have now found replacing those workers extremely difficult.

Although airlines Ryanair and Jet2 claim they started recruiting early enough and have not been affected by staff shortages.

“The aviation industry was decimated during Covid, and now has to do an enormous rebuild effort,” said Mr Woodroofe. “That’s airports, airlines, ground handlers, border force. All of these organisations have the biggest recruitment effort they’ve ever had to do. The reality is we are still recruiting.”

Image caption,

The vast majority of staff at airports do not work for the airport itself but for other employers such as airlines, security or baggage handling firms

In Terminal 1, BBC News saw some of Manchester’s newest security officer recruits learning the ropes.

It has taken three months for some to begin their new roles due to the background checks, security clearance and training required.

Recruitment is also a major focus at Gatwick. Although the airport cut almost half its workers during the pandemic – when South Terminal was closed – the management insist enough were kept on to deal with a significant ramp-up.

Security officer, Rupesh, was among those made redundant in 2020 – but he returned in March. “It took a few months to get my airside [pass] renewed”, he said. But he’s happy to be back and “see some old faces”.

“The challenge we face is customers waiting a bit longer than they normally should – but that is down to the staff that we have and number of lanes in operation.”

Image caption,

Cyrus Dana said 450 security staff had been recently hired ahead of the busiest period of the year

Gatwick’s head of security, Cyrus Dana, said hundreds of new colleagues had already been recruited and this effort would continue until October. Hiring for next year has already started.

“There will be very rare occasions when you may join a queue outside of [the] departure [area]. But what I can encourage people to think about is that the queue will dissipate very quickly,” he said, with the majority experiencing no more than a 10-minute wait.

But security staff alone cannot ensure passengers have a hassle-free journey. Aviation is a complex ecosystem, and staff shortages are hitting other areas too.

Airport staff, for instance, represent just a tenth of the Manchester workforce, with the rest employed by airlines, ground handling or border force.

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption,

Airlines are struggling to re-hire enough staff after cutting so many jobs during the pandemic

Last month, Gatwick Airport put a limit on summer flight numbers. Similarly, Heathrow Airport is limiting the number of passengers who can depart each day over the peak. Manchester Airport has not imposed any caps.

Gatwick Airport chief commercial officer, Jonathan Pollard, said staffing was a big part of his rationale: “The last minute ‘on the day’ cancellations… many of those have been caused through either airline crew shortages, or some of those core providers – such as ground handlers, that service the flights – having insufficient staff.”

He said he took pre-emptive action ahead of July and August to ensure these didn’t continue, or increase, although conceded this still meant disappointment for some people whose holidays had been cancelled as a result.

The government also allowed airlines to return their flight slots, which British Airways used to reduce its August-October schedule.

Garry Wilson, chief executive of EasyJet Holidays said even though the airline had cut some flights from schedules more than 70% of those passengers had now been rebooked.

Asked if EasyJet could guarantee there would not be further cancellations, he said: “We’ve done everything in our control to ensure there’s resilience in the system.

“Now, there may be other things happening – like air traffic control delays, or with airport infrastructure.”

He added if that were the case the airline would ensure “whenever there are interruptions to normal service, we have as much information [as possible] that we can pass on to customers.”

He rejected the suggestion EasyJet had failed to prepare for the summer. “No, I think with the information we had at the time, we took all the steps that were necessary. As soon as we knew there was strain on the system, we built up that resilience, by taking flights out”.

Mr Wilson said EasyJet did now have enough staff.

So, after the race to recruit, and many thousands of cancellations, are airports now primed to deliver people’s long-awaited trips abroad?

At Gatwick, Mr Pollard is cautious, saying despite their huge planning efforts “there will be periods across the summer where things may not feel quite as normal as they did.”

But that the experience “for a passenger at Gatwick will be considerably better than it might have been,” he added.

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