Airports and ground handlers have spoken out about the complex operational challenges they face going into the summer travel season.
In a joint statement, Olivier Jankovec, director general of ACI Europe, and Fabio Gamba, managing director of the Airport Services Association (ASA), have identified several key underlying causes and potential solutions to the widespread disruptions experienced by passengers during peak travel periods.
In the wake of European states easing travel restrictions in March, the recovery of passenger traffic has accelerated sharply and suddenly. While still remaining below pre-pandemic (2019) levels, passenger traffic has also become much more concentrated over peak periods. According to the statement, these traffic peaks have matched and even exceeded pre-pandemic levels at many airports, particularly larger hubs.
The statement said that coping with this sudden increase and concentration of air traffic has been challenging for airports and their operational partners, particularly ground handlers. This has resulted in an increase in flight delays and cancellations, and more generally a degraded passenger experience at many airports, as key processes including check-in, security screening and baggage delivery involve longer waiting times.
The main underlying reason for the disruption given by the statement is the “impossibility of scaling up staffing to the levels required in order to accommodate the surge in passenger traffic.”
ACI Europe and ASA have listed the underlying causes of the airport and ground handling staff crunch as:
- Airports and ground handlers coming out of the Covid-19 crisis with depleted resources, as they have been forced to lay off staff in those areas due to the collapse in air traffic in 2020 and 2021. According to the statement, “The fact that airports and ground handlers received far less financial aid than airlines and that such aid came rather late was a significant contributing factor to their weakened operational capabilities.”
- An extremely tight labor market across Europe. The statement reads, “The fact that security and ground handling jobs have for many years stood at the lower end of pay scales and also involve working in shifts seven-days a week is a clear handicap in attracting people in the current inflationary environment.”
- Training and security clearance requirements “that make it impossible to quickly adapt and deploy additional staff – as they result in lead times of up to 16 weeks between staff recruitment and actual deployment.”
Looking ahead, a recent survey of European airports by ACI Europe has revealed:
- 66% expect flight delays to increase.
- 16% expect flight cancellations to increase.
- 15% expect flight schedules to be adapted.
- 35% expect the airport and ground handling staff crunch to affect their operations beyond the summer season.
ACI Europe and ASA stress that there is no quick and easy fix in the short-term, but disruptions could be reduced by:
- Faster security clearance from competent authorities for airport and ground handling staff.
- Airlines adapting their schedules to reduce traffic peaks and returning unused slots as early as possible.
- Effective and even closer dialog and cooperation between all partners involved.
The statement added: “In the medium-term, EU rules on ground handling need to be reconsidered with a renewed focus on resilience. It is crucial that no further liberalization of ground handling is pursued without a robust legal package aimed at guaranteeing a minimum quality of service and the promotion and recognition of the ground handling workers’ skills through, for instance, the creation of widely recognized training passports. Also, the ability to set an upper limit on the number of ground handling suppliers based on the size of the market (or airport) would go a long way in addressing both social and operational shortcomings.”