Pilots describe toxic culture and aviation errors

The chaos that has gripped many major airports in North America and Europe since the start of summer has not eased much, and news outlets and social media users continue to report on crowds of impatient travelers. Rings and mountains of lost suitcases.

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Flights cancelled. Form a long queue. Staff walking. Baggage missing.

Sound familiar? The chaos that has gripped many major airports in North America and Europe since the summer has not subsided much, and news outlets and social media users continue to report the crowds of impatient travelers and queues. Lost suitcase mountain.

This week only, German service provider Lufthansa has canceled almost all of its flights In Frankfurt and Munich, about 130,000 visitors were stranded as a result of a day-long walk by ground staff, who went on strike for better pay.

London’s Heathrow Airport and Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport – two of the largest tourist hubs in Europe –reduce their passenger capacity and ask airlines to cut flights in and out of their airports, angering both travelers and airline managers.

Service providers in The US has also canceled and delayed tens of thousands of flights due to staff shortages and weather problems.

Airlines are blaming the airports and the government. On Monday, the chief financial officer of European low-cost carrier Ryanair, Neil Sorahan, complained that airports “have only one thing to do.”

Unsorted suitcases at Heathrow Airport. The UK’s largest airport has asked airlines to stop selling summer tickets.

Paul Ellis | Afp | beautiful pictures

But many of those working in the industry say airlines are also partly responsible for the staff shortages and that the situation is becoming so dire it could threaten safety.

CNBC spoke to several pilots who are flying for major airlines, all of whom describe fatigue from working long hours and what they say is opportunism and a desire to cut costs as a part of the toxic “race to the bottom” culture that is pervading the industry and worsening the mayhem. situation that travelers are facing today.

The airline staff all spoke anonymously 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 low-cost carrier easyJet told CNBC.

“Leading in the summer, it was an absolute carnage 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 far as possible. as much as possible for humans – it’s almost as if the pandemic never happened,” the pilot said.

“But they forgot that they had cut off all their resources.”

The ensuing imbalance “made our lives into absolute chaos, both crew and pilots,” the pilot added, explaining the shortage of ground staff since the pandemic. layoffs – baggage handlers, check-in, security and more – created a wrench-throwing domino effect on flight schedules.

A bit of toxic soup…airports and airlines share the same level of blame.

In a statement, easyJet said that the health and well-being of its employees was “our highest priority”, noting that “we take our responsibilities as an employer very seriously and employs its employees under local contracts on competitive terms and in accordance with local laws.”

The industry is currently plagued by a combination of factors: insufficient resources to retrain, former employees unwilling to return, and low wages that have remained largely stifled since the cuts. pandemic era, although airline revenue has improved significantly.

“They’ve told us pilots we’re going to take a pay cut until at least 2030 – except all managers get full pay plus a pay rise due to inflation,” he said. a British Airways pilot said.

“Different governments with their restrictions and not supporting the aviation sector” as well as airport companies are largely responsible for the current turmoil, the pilot added. that “several airlines have taken advantage of this situation to cut wages, make new contracts and lay off staff, and now that things are back to normal they just can’t cope.”

While many airports and airlines are now hiring and paying higher wages, mandatory training programs and security clearance officers have also been severely cut and overwhelmed, continuing to cause difficulties. difficult for this area.

‘They were shocked, it was unbelievable’

British Airways ground staff were prepared to go on strike in August over the fact that their full pay has yet to be restored – which is particularly thorny at a time when the CEO of BA’s parent company , IAG, receive a subsistence allowance of £250,000 ($303,000) for a year.

But this week, the airline and the workers’ union agreed to raise wages for the planned strike, although some employees say it’s still not a full refund for them before the pandemic.

Nicolas Economou / NurPhoto via Getty Images

In a statement, British Airways said, “The past two years have devastated the entire airline industry. We have taken action to restructure our business to survive and to save jobs.”

The company also said that “much of the redundancy during this time period was voluntary.”

“We are fully focused on building resilience in our operations to give our customers the certainty they deserve,” the airline said.

IAG chief executive Luis Gallego, whose company owns BA, lost his £900,000 bonus in 2021 and voluntarily reduced his salary in 2020 and 2021, and received no bonus in 2020.

They just want the cheapest labor to generate great bonuses for themselves and keep shareholders happy.

A pilot who flies for Dubai’s flagship Emirates Airline says that the short-term mindset that has taken employees for granted for many years has laid the foundation for today’s situation.

Airlines are “happy to try to cut wages for so many people in the industry over the years, assuming no one else has anywhere else to go,” the pilot said. “And now that people are exercising their right to go somewhere else, they’re shocked, this is unbelievable. I’m shocked because they’re shocked.”

A safety risk?

All of this stress on airline staff rests on the often overlooked issue of pilot fatigue, all pilots interviewed by CNBC said.

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

“It’s a big worry for us that we have a pretty toxic culture, a bad workload,” the Emirates pilot said. “All of that adds up to the possibility of reducing the margin of safety. And that’s a big concern.”

All of this is combined with low wages and unattractive contracts, pilots said, many of which were rewritten as the pandemic hit air travel.

“All of that is a toxic soup, airports and airlines share the same level of blame. It’s been a race to the bottom for years,” the Emirates pilot said. “They’ll just try and pay as little as possible when they can get the money.”

Emirates Airline did not respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

‘Race to the bottom’

“Crown capitalists. Race to the bottom. There’s no respect for a skilled workforce anymore,” the BA pilot said of business leadership in the industry. “They just want the cheapest labor to generate great bonuses for themselves and keep shareholders happy.”

The International Air Transport Association said in response to the criticism that “the airline industry is ramping up resources as quickly as possible to meet the needs of travelers safely and efficiently.” The company admits that “there is no doubt that these are difficult times for workers in the industry, especially as they are experiencing a shortage of supply.”

The trade group made recommendations “to attract and retain talent in the ground handling sector,” and said in a statement that “ensuring additional resources where gaps exist are one of the top priorities of industry management teams worldwide.”

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

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