Delays in getting security clearance for staff are behind huge staff shortages at UK airports, according to trade body the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
Thousands of travellers have had flights cancelled during the busy half term week in England, with operators including Tui, EasyJet and British Airways unable to get enough staff to cover ground and air operations.
Willie Walsh, director general of IATA and former CEO of British Airways, said it was taking up to three months to get security badges for new employees in the UK, when the usual waiting time was three or four weeks.
With many other sectors recruiting high numbers of staff, Walsh said recruits were unwilling to wait months to start work.
“You offer them a job, they accept it, and then you have to go through this period of three months to get security clearance – they’re not going to hang around. They’ll go and find a job somewhere else,” he said.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps, meanwhile, claimed that travel companies have “seriously oversold flights and holidays”.
“This must not happen again and all efforts should be directed at there being no repeat of this over the summer – the first post-Covid summer season,” he said.
Travel companies have refuted this claim, referring to the fact the government kept strict restrictions on travel for a number of months after the furlough scheme ended.
Airlines and airport operators were forced to lay off large numbers of staff – many of whom have found jobs in other industries – but lacked reassurance as to when they could recruit again.
Airlines UK, another trade body, said the sector had “only a matter of weeks to recover and prepare for one of the busiest summers we’ve seen in many years”.
The government announced new measures to speed up the recruitment process into the aviation sector in April, where employees would be able to begin training before passing security checks, but this has not helped staff shortages on the ground.
The Airport Operators Association said that the UK “had one of the most restrictive travel regimes in Europe and these [restrictions] were only lifted fully in March this year”.
“Airports anticipated it would be challenging at peak times as the industry seeks to re-start and have had big recruitment campaigns underway since before the start of this year.
“But until the restrictions were lifted, uncertainty about the future of travel made this difficult. Since then, there has been a very positive response and airports are now seeing additional staff completing the required vetting and training, and being deployed.”
The trade association said it would work with airports and the government to “ensure we are ready for the summer getaway – the first proper summer holiday period since the start of the pandemic”.
BA to ballot over strike action
Separately, the Unite union is balloting British Airways staff at London Heathrow over potential strike action over pay.
The union wants the company to restore wages to pre-pandemic levels, after a pay cut was imposed during Covid restrictions. If the ballot is successful, strike action could take place in July, potentially creating further delays and chaos for passengers.
The ballot will open next week, on 7 June.