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EasyJet cutting seats: How else could airline staff shortages affect flights and summer holidays?

Low-cost airline is removing seats from certain aircraft in order to operate with a smaller crew

Lucy Thackray
Tuesday 10 May 2022 08:38 BST
Staff absences and shortages are playing havoc with summer holidays
Staff absences and shortages are playing havoc with summer holidays (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Low-cost airline easyJet hit the headlines at the weekend when it announced it would be removing the back row of seats from its A319 fleet, in order to operate flights on the aircraft with one fewer crew member.

UK legislation dictates that each flight must have “one member of the cabin crew for every 50 or fraction of 50 passenger seats installed in the aircraft.”

The move will reduce capacity on some of the carrier’s planes from 156 to 150 passengers.

It’s just one of the effects of the staff shortages that have hit airlines including easyJet and British Airways this spring, with more issues expected into summer.

Both airlines have cancelled dozens of flights in recent weeks, blaming staff absences and slow recruitment for the problems.

But what other knock-on effects could airline and airport staff shortages have on our spring and summer holidays?

Here’s everything you need to know.

Why is easyJet removing plane seats?

Britain’s biggest budget airline is set to remove six seats (the back row) from its A319 planes ahead of its summer schedule, to enable flights to run with three, rather than four, crew members onboard.

UK legislation dictates that airlines must have one cabin crew member for every 50 passengers on a flight.

An easyJet spokesperson told press: “This summer we will be operating our UK A319 fleet with a maximum of 150 passengers onboard and three crew in line with CAA [Civil Aviation Authority] regulations.

“This is an effective way of operating our fleet while building additional resilience and flexibility into our operation this summer where we expect to be back to near 2019 levels of flying.”

All the affected aircraft are based in the UK, where about 60 of the airline’s 126-strong fleet are located.

Though the carrier did not mention staff shortages, it has attributed recent cancellations to high levels of staff sickness and absences.

The Independent’s travel expert Simon Calder says: “The airline did something similar in the 2000s, though as a cost-cutting measure rather than as a reaction to staff shortage. At the time there was no obligation to remove seats; instead, a large X symbol was placed on six of the seats and passengers were prohibited from sitting in them.”

He adds that the removal of these seats is unlikely to affect summer bookings, since the last few seats on any given short-haul flight are often sold at the last minute anyway.

How else could staff shortages affect summer holidays?

For one thing, you should allow plenty of time at the airport ahead of your flight.

UK, Ireland and wider European airports have all suffered longer-than-usual queues and flight delays as they recover from the travel shutdown of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A report released by airports association ACI Europe last week found that two-thirds (66 per cent) of the continent’s airports expect flight delays to increase “into summer and beyond”.

Meanwhile, more than one third say operations will be affected by staff shortages during summer and beyond; and one in six airports expect increased flight cancellations during the peak summer period.

Airports including Manchester, Dublin and Birmingham have all advised travellers flying from their terminals to arrive no less than three hours early, and encouraged customers to pre-separate their security items, such as laptops and liquids, to ensure a smoother, more efficient security process.

Equally, some airports have been keen to emphasise that passengers shouldn’t arrive too early - several have pointed to customers arriving more than three or four hours early clogging up queues for people whose flights are departing earlier in the day.

Manchester Airport was experiencing hours-long queues as recently as Monday morning, with at least one customer saying they had missed their flight due to getting stuck in a security queue.

Ian Costigan, interim managing director of Manchester Airport, said the airport was undergoing a successful “recruitment drive” in order to operate a “full flight schedule” this summer.

"We want to make sure that customers get away on their travels, so everyone at Manchester Airport is focused on bringing in the extra resources we need to continue operating our full flight schedule,” he told Manchester Evening News.

“It is encouraging to see new staff joining us as a result of our ongoing recruitment drive, and we have seen security waiting times reduce in recent weeks. The last few weeks have been challenging but the team on the ground has done a great job in getting passengers through security more quickly, and I would like to thank all colleagues for their hard work and dedication.”

On top of airport delays before departure, both British Airways and easyJet have been forced to preemptively cancel hundreds of flights in recent weeks.

Some airlines have also been forced to reduce onboard catering services due to staffing issues - in a statement to customers this week, Tui has warned it may not be able to offer food and drink onboard its flights in the coming days.

A Tui spokesperson told press: “We can confirm that unfortunately due to staff shortages with our catering supplier, there may be limited food and drinks services available onboard Tui Airways short- and mid-haul flights over the coming days.

“Customers may therefore want to bring their own food and soft drinks onboard (no alcohol permitted). Any soft drinks over 100ml will need to be purchased after you have passed through security.

“Please note this disruption does not affect any long-haul flights to Aruba, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Mexico, Orlando and St Lucia and meal services on these flights will continue to operate as normal.

“Please be assured we are continuously monitoring the situation and working closely with our suppliers to limit the impact to the onboard service for our customers. We are directly contacting all customers impacted.”

Tui updated its advice on 9 May to say the issue had been resolved, advising: “We can confirm that the issue has now been resolved and the catering offer onboard our flights will resume as normal from tomorrow.

“We know how much our customers value the ability to purchase food and drinks onboard and we thank them for their patience and understanding.”

Simon Calder, The Independent’s travel correspondent, says: “As soon as you walk through the door to the airport, the prospects of encountering staff shortage begin.

“For aviation to function, you need a vast number of skilled, security-cleared people who don’t mind working extremely anti-social hours.

“With the severe slump in business brought about by government travel restrictions, airports and airlines lost hundreds of thousands of experienced staff – and attracting people back into the travel industry when less onerous work is available is proving extremely difficult.

“When an airline is reduced to taking out seats from its planes to allow it to spread cabin crew more thinly, you know that aviation is in trouble.”

What have airlines said about the delays and shortages?

In mid-April, easyJet’s chief executive Johan Lundgren also said the airline had been hampered by a slow recruitment process overseen by the UK government.

Mr Lundgren said the airline was waiting for the Department for Transport (DfT) to give permission for around 100 new members of staff to start work.

This week, an easyJet spokesperson said that the airline had seen high levels of sickness during April - more than double the normal rate at their peak - meaning it had been forced to “preemptively cancel” a small proportion of flights.

They emphasised that the airline had successfully operated around 1,600 flights a day last month, carrying a quarter of a million passengers.

British Airways said it had been struggling with increased staff sickness as well as recruiting new staff to meet the fresh demand for travel, saying it had reduced its summer schedule to improve operational issues.

A spokesperson also mentioned the vetting process for new airline staff, which includes referencing and can take weeks to complete.

“The past few weeks have been challenging for the entire industry and at British Airways we’re completely focused on three priorities: our customers, supporting the biggest recruitment drive in our history and increasing our operational resilience,” the British flag carrier said in a statement.

“We’ve taken action to reduce our schedule to help provide certainty for our customers and are giving them maximum flexibility to either rebook with us or another airline as close to their original departure time as possible, or to receive a full refund.”

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