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Pilots describe toxic culture and airline errors

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The chaos engulfing many major airports in North America and Europe since summer began hasn’t abated much, and news outlets and social media users proceed to report on hordes of impatient travelers and mountains of misplaced suitcases.

Source: Getty Images

Canceled flights. Long lines. Staff walkouts. Missing luggage. 

Sound familiar? The chaos engulfing many major airports in North America and Europe since summer hasn’t abated much, and news outlets and social media users proceed to report on hordes of impatient travelers and mountains of misplaced suitcases.

Just this week, German carrier Lufthansa canceled nearly all its flights in Frankfurt and Munich, stranding some 130,000 travelers on account of a one-day walkout by its ground staff who were on strike for higher pay.  

London’s Heathrow Airport and Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport — two of the most important travel hubs in Europe —slashed their passenger capability and demanded that airlines cut flights out and in of their airports, which angered each travelers and airline managers.

Carriers within the U.S. have also canceled and delayed tens of 1000’s of flights on account of staffing shortages and weather issues. 

Airlines are vocally laying the blame on airports and governments. On Monday, the chief financial officer of low-cost European carrier Ryanair, Neil Sorahan, complained that airports “had one job to do.”

Uncollected suitcases at Heathrow Airport. The U.K.’s biggest airport has told airlines to stop selling summer tickets.

Paul Ellis | Afp | Getty Images

But a lot of those working within the industry say airlines are partly accountable for staff shortages as well, and the situation is becoming dire enough that it could threaten safety. 

CNBC spoke to several pilots flying for major airlines, all of whom described fatigue on account of long hours and what they said was opportunism and a desire to chop costs as a part of a toxic “race to the underside” culture pervading the industry and worsening the messy situation that travelers are facing today.

All of the airline staff spoke anonymously because they weren’t authorized to talk to the press.   

‘Absolute carnage’

“From a passenger standpoint, it’s an absolute nightmare,” a pilot for European low-cost carrier easyJet told CNBC. 

“Leading into the summer, it was absolute carnage because airlines didn’t know what they were doing. They did not have a correct plan in place. All they knew they desired to do was attempt to fly as much as humanly possible – almost as if the pandemic had never happened,” the pilot said. 

“But they forgot that they’d cut all of their resources.”

The following imbalance has “made our life an absolute mess, each cabin crew and pilots,” the pilot added, explaining how a shortage of ground staff since the Covid pandemic layoffs — those that handle baggage, check-in, security and more — has created a domino effect that is throwing a wrench into flying schedules.

A little bit of a toxic soup … the airports and the airlines share an equal level of blame.

In a press release, easyJet said that the health and well-being of employees is “our highest priority,” stressing that “we take our responsibilities as an employer very seriously and employ our people on local contracts on competitive terms and according to local laws.”

The industry is now hobbled by a mixture of things: not having enough resources for retraining, former staff not wanting to return, and poor pay that has largely remained suppressed since pandemic-era cuts, despite significantly improved revenue for airlines. 

“They’ve told us pilots we’re on pay cuts until at the least 2030 — except all of the managers are back on full pay plus pay rises for inflation,” a pilot for British Airways said. 

“Various governments with their restrictions and no support for the aviation sector” in addition to airport firms are largely accountable for the present chaos, the pilot said, adding that “some airlines took advantage of the situation to chop salaries, make latest contracts and lay people off, and now that things are back to normal they can not cope.”

While many airports and airlines at the moment are recruiting and offering higher pay, the required training programs and security clearance processors are also severely reduce and overwhelmed, further hobbling the sector.  

‘They’re shocked, which is incredible’

British Airways ground staff were set to strike in August over the indisputable fact that their full pay had still not been reinstated — something especially stinging at a time when the CEO of BA’s parent company, IAG, was given a £250,000 ($303,000) gross living allowance for the 12 months. 

But this week, the airline and employees’ union agreed on a salary increase to call off the planned strike, though some staff say it’s still not a full return to their pre-pandemic pay.  

Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In a press release, British Airways said: “The last two years have been devastating for the whole aviation industry. We took motion to restructure our business to survive and to save lots of jobs.”

The corporate also said, “the overwhelming majority of redundancies during this time period were voluntary.”

“We’re completely focused on constructing resilience into our operation to offer customers the understanding they deserve,” the airline said.

IAG CEO Luis Gallego, whose company owns BA, forfeited his £900,000 bonus in 2021 and took voluntary salary reductions in 2020 and 2021, and didn’t receive his 2020 bonus.

They simply want the most cost effective labor to provide their very own big bonuses and keep shareholders completely happy.

One pilot flying for Dubai’s flagship Emirates Airline said that a short-term mindset that took employees as a right had for years been laying the groundwork for today’s situation.

The airlines “were completely happy to attempt to depress wages for plenty of people within the industry for years, on the idea that no person had anywhere else to go,” the pilot said. “And now that folks are exercising their right to go someplace else, they’re shocked, which is incredible. I’m shocked that they are shocked.”

A security risk?

All this stress for airline staff comes on top of the usually ignored issue of pilot fatigue, all of the pilots interviewed by CNBC said.

The legal maximum limit for a pilot’s flying time is 900 hours per 12 months. But for a lot of airlines, “that wasn’t seen as absolutely the maximum, it was seen because the goal to attempt to make everybody’s workload as efficient as possible,” the easyJet pilot said.

“That is the large worry with us is that we have a reasonably toxic culture, an inordinate amount of labor,” the Emirates pilot echoed. “That each one adds as much as potentially reducing the security margin. And that is a giant concern.”

All this has been combined with low pay and fewer attractive contracts, the pilots say, a lot of which were rewritten when the pandemic turned air travel on its head.

“A little bit of a toxic soup of all of those, the airports and the airlines share an equal level of blame. It has been a race to the underside for years,” the Emirates pilot said. “They’re only going to ever attempt to pay as little as they will get away with paying.”

Emirates Airline didn’t reply to a CNBC request for comment. 

‘Race to the underside’

“Crony capitalists. Rat race to the underside. No respect for expert workforce now,” the BA pilot said of the industry’s corporate leadership. “They simply want the most cost effective labor to provide their very own big bonuses and keep shareholders completely happy.”

The International Air Transport Association said in response to those criticisms that “the airline industry is ramping up resources as quickly as possible to securely and efficiently meet the needs of travelers.” It acknowledged that “there isn’t any doubt that these are tough times for the industry’s employees, particularly where they’re briefly supply.”

The trade group has issued recommendations “to draw and retain talent in the bottom handling sector,” and said in a press release that “securing additional resources where deficiencies exist is among the many top priorities of industry management teams all over the world.”

“And within the meantime,” it added, “the patience of travelers.”

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