Aviation chaos: We need to talk about Brexit

Plane Talk: Leaving the EU has subtracted staff from airlines and airports in two damaging ways

<p>Helping out: an Iberia aircraft landing at London Heathrow</p>

Helping out: an Iberia aircraft landing at London Heathrow

June 2021 was the first full month of that year in which anything beyond a skeleton aviation industry could operate to, from and within the UK.

Travellers had only just been released from the 19-week international travel ban; Portugal was the only major country on the quarantine-free “green list” (a status it would lose just days later).

The UK aviation industry was crushed, and every time it tried to rise from the wreckage of hopes, dreams and profits the government would come up with another nonsensical rule to discourage travel. Who could forget “amber plus”, the category invented just before the main summer holidays started in July 2021 that had no rational basis whatsoever yet served as an effective ban on travel to France?

As June 2022 begins, all the UK travel restrictions are long forgotten (and the government has vowed that any future such measures would be light-touch). And while we seek to make up for lost sunshine, airlines and holiday companies are desperate to start earning proper money again.

Unfortunately, easyJet at Gatwick and Tui at Manchester airport have been found wanting – with both businesses cutting flights by the dozen as they seek enough staff to run the planned operation.

As The Independent has pointed out, foreign airlines are having similar rebirth pangs, with the giant US airline Delta pre-emptively grounding flights in July and August. But last-minute cancellations are especially savage, and that is what travellers have been suffering over the past few days and weeks.

The government and some commentators are blaming airports and airlines for being unready. But I think we need to talk about Brexit.

Suggesting that leaving the European Union is to some extent responsible for the current problems the UK is experiencing triggers plenty of online heckling – such as a tweet saying: “This sh**e happens every half term or bank holiday weekends. This is not a new disease.”

Yet in no previous half term have we seen a major airline cancelling 10 per cent of its Gatwick schedule because of staff shortage, as easyJet has, nor a giant holiday company (Tui) axing 30,000 holidays due to insufficient ground handling at Manchester.

Talking off the record to airlines and recruiting consultants point to two specific consequences of Brexit. Plenty of European staff left both the British aviation industry and the UK during the Covid pandemic. They have not returned, some no doubt taking up roles in aviation within the EU – where they feel more wanted.

The other effect is more subtle but arguably even more significant. Far more Europeans worked in hospitality here than in aviation. A large proportion of them also left the UK. And that created a vast array of vacancies. Many excellent British aviation professionals, furloughed for many months and uncertain if their jobs would ever return, “backfilled” those roles. They are unlikely to be lured back to a high-stress role with unsocial hours.

Even the most committed “Remoaner” could not blame all the ills of the travel industry at Brexit’s door; the worst airport queues in Europe this month have not been in the UK, but at Amsterdam and Dublin. And EU labour continues to help us out, in the shape of airlines such as SmartLynx and Avion Express. You may not have heard of these airlines, which are based in Latvia and Lithuania respectively. They are helping to fill gaps in the easyJet schedules at Gatwick – as Finnair and Iberia are doing for British Airways at Heathrow.

Bizarrely, UK airlines can charter in fully crewed EU planes to fly domestic routes – though the opposite does not apply. “Taking back control” takes many strange shapes.

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