Passengers expecting delays at UK airports this Easter holiday are taking extra precautions including arriving early, with some even staying in nearby hotels the night before they fly.
Sallyanne Glynn, 52, decided to stay in a hotel near Heathrow with her family the night before a flight to New York to celebrate her daughter’s 21st birthday, at a cost of £1,000. “It was to make things easier for us,” she said. “I don’t think anybody is back to normal yet. The airport is a huge operation with thousands of staff and you can’t just switch that on and off.”
Airports are expecting a huge surge in passenger numbers as people jet off on longed-for Easter breaks after the lifting of Covid travel restrictions. Travel company Tui said demand was “strong” for school holiday getaways. Hays Travel also said it was “very busy” for overseas departures over Easter.
Many airports have recruited more staff to help cope after layoffs during the pandemic and other staff leaving during the so-called “Great Resignation” have resulted in shortages. With a tight and competitive labor market, airports are struggling to fill vacancies.
Heathrow has deployed extra colleagues to help people get on their way as quickly and smoothly as possible, in expectation of passenger numbers “not seen since early March 2020”.
Manchester airport, which is reopening its second runway next Tuesday, said it was working to put measures in place. A spokesperson said that during the pandemic there was a reduction of about 25% in staff numbers and that it began a “bumper” recruitment drive in January to “fill hundreds of roles in its security operation”. The airport’s partner organisations, such as airlines and ground handlers, have also been recruiting.
Stansted began a major recruitment drive in January. It has teamed up with Tottenham Hotspur football club to hold a jobs fair at their stadium next Tuesday. A spokesperson advised passengers to leave plenty of time to get to the airport and through the checks and to be aware of all security restrictions before leaving home.
At Heathrow, passengers at Terminal 5 last week complained about “quarter-mile-long” queues at immigration. Environment minister Richard Benyon, who was caught in the delays, called it a “shambles”.
A spokesperson for the Home Office, which is responsible for the UK Border Force, said it was “clear that queue times may be longer” with the reopening of international travel and a rise in passenger numbers. It said it was working to “ensure passengers have the smoothest possible journey” including deploying its staff flexibly.
Problems at Heathrow continued when a technical issue with British Airways on Wednesday left passengers affected by long delays, with some cancellations. The airline said the IT failure was resolved by the afternoon. However, there was a knock-on effect, with “a reduction in schedule” on Thursday compounded by bad weather.
British Airways said it had offered refunds, hotel accommodation and refreshment vouchers, or to rebook people on alternative flights where needed.
At Gatwick, where the second of two terminals reopened last weekend after 21 months, a spokesperson said there were no staffing issues but added that the terminals “may be busy during peak periods, such as weekends and the Easter holidays”.
DAA International, a subsidiary of the company responsible for Cork and Dublin airports, said it too was working on “recruitment, training and necessary background checks” to address the issue of long queues and disruption. But a spokesperson said these processes take several weeks.
Passengers, perhaps out of practice at taking flights, have been advised to check their airline’s guidelines and to refamiliarise themselves with security rules including those on carrying liquids in hand luggage.
Meanwhile, a report published this week by industry trade body the Airport Operators Association (AOA) found that “UK airports lost £10bn in revenue since the first lockdown in March 2020 and have taken on more than £4bn in debt”. It added that 2021 was worse than 2020 with UK airports seeing “the lowest passenger numbers since 1983”.
It called for more help from the UK and returned governments and a “comprehensive aviation recovery plan”. Airports in Germany, Italy, Ireland and the US got up to eight times as much financial support as UK airports did, the trade body said.
Karen Dee, the chief executive of the AOA, said that while airports have been preparing for the return of greater numbers of people travelling, “at peak times passengers may not have the experience they are used to”.
Unite national officer Oliver Richardson said an overhaul was needed to make the industry more resilient. “The problems facing airline passengers are set to get worse,” he said. “The model that the aviation sector operates on is broken and unless it becomes more attractive to potential employees it won’t be able to recruit the workforce that is needed to meet demand as flights steadily increase.”