Manchester Airport was thrown into chaos this week due to a lack of staff. Holiday makers waited for planes for hours only to be told their flights were cancelled last minute by text, and pilots were on the runway assisting baggage handlers.
One passenger with disabilities was left stranded on an incoming flight from Rome and was forced to ring the police for assistance. A family from Warrington spent two days in the airport having booked a holiday to Turkey only to have to return home. The stream of unhappy passengers seems to have been constant this past week.
Manchester Airport struggling with staff shortages
Since mid-March, Manchester Airport has been left short staffed as flight numbers ramp up for holiday periods. Having laid off hundreds of staff in 2020 due to Covid, the airport has struggled to attract back staff who were let go, and it faces significant problems with recruitment and checks. Checks on new staff are taking over a month to complete despite appeals from Andy Burnham to the government to speed up the process. But Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has refused point blank to even consider it.
Shapps has also proposed the idea of issuing visas to EU workers, a system which is in place in some industries such as IT. So why is the airline industry crying out for visas for EU staff? Because, like in many other industries, EU workers have returned home – leading to staff shortages – and they can no longer come and work in the UK unless they were living here before the end of 2020 and have settled status.
Issues were seen at airports across Europe this week due to increased flight traffic for holidays. Schiphol in the Netherlands was badly affected, with Dutch airline KLM cancelling up to 50 flights a day this weekend. Over 1,000 passengers missed flights in Dublin due to staffing issues. However, the UK is in a uniquely poor position and it’s showing by the level of chaos being experienced. Tui alone has now cancelled holidays for 34,000 customers in June out of Manchester airport.
Staff shortages linked to Brexit
With problems such as staff shortages you’d think the government would be doing everything in its power to help the UK industry, but its ideological attachment to Brexit is preventing Shapps from taking the necessary steps to plug the gaps with EU workers.
Industry figures such as Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary and Steve Heapy of Jet2 are making it absolutely clear that the lack of EU staff is due to Brexit. Travel expert Simon Calder points out that as well as EU airport staff leaving the UK, their UK counterparts who were let go are now filling jobs in hospitality previously done by EU workers, compounding the problem.
If holiday makers actually make it onto the plane (and it actually takes off), for many there will be more queueing to be done after landing as UK passport holders now have to have passports manually checked and stamped by police on landing. UK passport holders now have to join the non-EU queue and are likely to spend several hours queueing there. This problem is unlikely to improve, as from 2023, UK citizens will require a form of visa to enter the EU.
Can the situation improve?
There is no doubt that the sacking of so many workers in 2020 by Manchester Airport was short sighted. Covid continues to hit the industry.
Manchester Airport and the airline industry could try to remedy the situation by improving pay and conditions. However, as the industry leaders mentioned above point out, Brexit is an additional problem for the industry. The best way to solve the problem would be a return to the single market and free movement of workers. Even Tory MP Tobias Ellwood suggested that the UK look at making this practical step. Hopefully, it won’t be too long before the UK enters a sensible debate about doing so.
In the meantime, the government should take every step possible to improve the situation for holiday makers this summer. They could start by improving the lengthy home office process for checks on new airport staff and by issuing EU workers with visas, as the industry is demanding.
With the government’s hostile environment in place, it’s hard to see why EU airline industry workers would choose to work in the UK when their skills are in such high demand. EU lorry drivers were less than keen to take up the offer, so why would EU airline workers be?