London Southend Airport has contacted airlines offering to host flights being cancelled by busier airports.
It comes after weeks of disruption across the aviation sector with post-COVID demand booming and many airports and airlines unable to cope.
Speaking to Sky News, the boss of Southend Airport Glyn Jones said the past few months had been “far from great,” adding: “It needs to be much better for next year.”
Thousands of flights have been cancelled by airlines and airports so far this summer as the industry struggles to scale back up and re-recruit all the staff that were let go during the pandemic.
The move has left many travellers anxious about their plans as the school holidays get under way.
But given this turmoil, the current scene at Southend might strike many as surprising – the terminal is very quiet.
In fact, the airport has only one or two flights departing a day and passenger numbers are down 95% on what they were pre-pandemic.
In 2019, the airport was growing 40% a year and handling in excess of two million passengers on 40 different routes. But airlines pulled out during lockdown, consolidating their schedules around bigger airports and many haven’t returned.
Only easyJet remains, running just four routes.
It means while the likes of Heathrow and Gatwick are cancelling flights, Southend has large amounts of spare capacity and is desperate for more business – a strong indication of just how off-kilter the industry remains post-pandemic.
“We’ve reached out actually, to many of the people who are going to be affected,” says Mr Jones.
“I think the issue is that it’s just very late for people, so we may be able to play, candidly, a minor role in it, but a minor role is a useful role if it’s your flight that’s affected.
“We’ve got a hiatus situation this summer. It’s not been great, let’s not kid ourselves, it’s been far from great. It needs to be much better for next year.”
Scuppered by security
But for things to get better what is needed is more staff.
The industry as a whole, needs tens of thousands more people, but finding them is proving very difficult.
Thousands were let go when the furlough scheme ended and the sector hadn’t reopened. But with record numbers of job vacancies across the economy, many found work elsewhere.
Even for those who do apply for jobs, the security clearances are so stringent, many can’t provide the necessary employment histories and others who can, don’t want to wait to be cleared.
Kully Sandhu runs the Aviation Recruitment Network, a recruitment agency employed by multiple airlines and airports.
At an assessment centre day in Luton, 16 people were registered to attend, only eight showed up.
This is typical he says. “I’ve got some clients who are coming to me crying, saying ‘I booked in 10 people, no one turned up for interviews’ and that is a reality.”
Fighting for candidates
His job has never been harder, while vacancies he is filling have doubled, applicants have halved.
“You have absolutely every single airport recruiting,” he says. “Everyone now is fighting for the same candidate.”
He blames the government for not extending the furlough scheme and then not giving the industry enough notice that things were reopening, which delayed the hiring process.
But, he says, there’s another key problem too. “Brexit has been the biggest challenge, especially for the larger airports.
“If you take Gatwick, Luton, Stansted and Heathrow Airport, you are relying on a workforce predominantly which was from Europe. We no longer have those individuals.”
Things like the passenger cap at Heathrow are a clear attempt to try to remove some of the uncertainty and last-minute cancellations. But many are highly critical of airlines and airports failing to plan ahead and start rehiring early enough.
It’s a situation that’s been described as a colossal “strategic failure”.
More realistic prices for plane tickets
Experts say the turbulence of this period and the weakness it has highlighted is likely to prompt a full industry re-set, the low-cost model just no longer working.
“We’ve always had a challenge of there being more supply than there is actual demand and airlines actually creating artificial demand with very low fares,” explains John Grant, an expert at aviation analyst firm OAG.
“We’ll either see fewer airlines and, quite frankly, I don’t think that will be the case because there are always new entrants, the barriers to entry are much lower than they’ve ever been… or we’re going to have to pay a more realistic price for our air fares.”
This may not offer much consolation to passengers hoping to get away for a much longed for summer holiday. Many may well expect better.