A toxic culture and ‘race to the bottom’: Pilots open up on why air travel is in chaos

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 continue to report on hordes of impatient travelers and mountains of misplaced suitcases.
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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 continue 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 due to a one-day walkout by its ground staff who were on strike for better pay.  

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

Carriers in the U.S. have also canceled and delayed tens of thousands of flights due to 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 many of those working in the industry say airlines are partly responsible 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 due to long hours and what they said was opportunism and a desire to cut costs as part of a toxic “race to the bottom” culture pervading the industry and worsening the messy situation that travelers are facing today.

All the airline staff spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to speak to the press.   

‘Absolute carnage’

“From a passenger point of view, 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 didn’t have a proper plan in place. All they knew they wanted to do was try and 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 ensuing imbalance has “made our life an absolute mess, both cabin crew and pilots,” the pilot added, explaining how a shortage of ground staff since the Covid pandemic layoffs — those who handle baggage, check-in, security and more — has created a domino effect that’s throwing a wrench into flying schedules.

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

In a statement, 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 in line with local legislation.”

The industry is now hobbled by a combination of factors: 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 are on pay cuts until at least 2030 — except all 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” as well as airport companies are in large part to blame for the current chaos, the pilot said, adding that “some airlines took advantage of the situation to cut salaries, make new contracts and lay people off, and now that things are back to normal they can’t cope.”

While many airports and airlines are now recruiting and offering better pay, the required training programs and security clearance processors are also severely cut back and overwhelmed, further hobbling the sector.  

‘They are shocked, which is incredible’

British Airways ground staff were set to strike in August over the 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 year. 

But this week, the airline and workers’ 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 statement, British Airways said: “The last two years have been devastating for the entire aviation industry. We took action to restructure our business to survive and to save jobs.”

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

“We’re completely focused on building resilience into our operation to give customers the certainty 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 did not receive his 2020 bonus.

They just want the cheapest labor to produce their own big bonuses and keep shareholders happy.
British Airways

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

The airlines “were happy to try and depress wages for lots of people in the industry for years, on the assumption that nobody had anywhere else to go,” the pilot said. “And now that people are exercising their right to go somewhere else, they are shocked, which is incredible. I’m shocked that they’re shocked.”

A safety risk?

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

The legal maximum limit for a pilot’s flying time is 900 hours per year. But for many airlines, “that wasn’t seen as the absolute maximum, it was seen as the target to try and make everybody’s workload as efficient as possible,” the easyJet pilot said.

“That’s the big worry with us is that we’ve got a fairly toxic culture, an inordinate amount of work,” the Emirates pilot echoed. “That all adds up to potentially reducing the safety margin. And that’s a big concern.”

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

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

Emirates Airline did not reply to a CNBC request for comment. 

‘Race to the bottom’

“Crony capitalists. Rat race to the bottom. No respect for skilled workforce now,” the BA pilot said of the industry’s corporate leadership. “They just want the cheapest labor to produce their own big bonuses and keep shareholders happy.”

The International Air Transport Association said in response to these criticisms that “the airline industry is ramping up resources as quickly as possible to safely and efficiently meet the needs of travelers.” It acknowledged that “there is no doubt that these are tough times for the industry’s workers, particularly where they are in short supply.”

The trade group has issued recommendations “to attract and retain talent in the ground handling sector,” and said in a statement that “securing additional resources where deficiencies exist is among the top priorities of industry management teams around the world.”

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

Sophie Tremblay

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