Analysis: Summer of discontent in Europe reveals labor crisis in travel sector

AMSTERDAM/PARIS/DOHA, June 20 (Reuters) – After 21 years as a service agent at Air France ( AIRF.PA ), Karim Djeffal quit his job during the COVID-19 pandemic to start his own job training consultancy.

“If this doesn’t work, I won’t return to the aviation sector,” says the 41-year-old bluntly. “Some shifts started at 4 in the morning and others ended at midnight. It can be exhausting.”

Djeffal offers a taste of what airports and airlines across Europe face as they race to hire thousands to cope with rising demand, dubbed “revenge travel” as people seek to make up for lost holidays during the pandemic.

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Airports in Germany, France, Spain and the Netherlands have tried to offer benefits, including pay raises and bonuses for workers who refer a friend.

Major operators have already scored thousands of openings across Europe. Read more

However, the hiring process may not come fast enough to erase the risk of canceled flights and long waits for travelers even beyond the summer peak, analysts and industry officials say.

The summer when air travel was supposed to return to normal after a two-year pandemic vacuum risks becoming the summer when the high-volume, low-cost air travel model broke down — at least in Europe’s vast integrated market.

Labor shortages and strikes have already caused disruption in London, Amsterdam, Paris, Rome and Frankfurt this spring.

Airlines such as low-cost giant easyJet ( EZJ.L ) are canceling hundreds of summer flights and new strikes are underway in Belgium, Spain, France and Scandinavia.

On Monday, the British carrier said it was cutting even more services in the busy summer period to help manage problems including ground staff shortages and flight limits at London Gatwick and Amsterdam. Read more

As industry leaders hold their annual summit in Qatar this week, a key topic will be who will bear responsibility for the chaos between airlines, airports and governments.

“There is a lot of mudslinging, but every party is to blame for not facing up to the demand resurgence,” said James Halstead, managing partner at consultancy Aviation Strategy.

Aviation lost 2.3 million jobs globally during the pandemic, with ground handling and security the hardest hit, according to industry lobby group the Air Transport Action Group.

Many workers are slow to return, lured by the ‘gig’ economy or choosing to retire early.

“They clearly have alternatives now and can change jobs,” said ING senior economist Rico Luman.

While he expects travel pressure to ease after the summer, he says shortages could persist as older workers stay away and, critically, fewer younger workers are willing to replace them.

“Even if there is a recession, the labor market will remain tight at least this year,” he said.

LOW MORALE

A major factor slowing hiring is the time it takes new workers to obtain security clearance – in France, up to five months for the most sensitive jobs, according to the CFDT union.

Marie Marivel, 56, works as a security operator checking baggage at CDG for around 1,800 euros a month after tax.

She says the absences have left staff overworked. Stranded passengers have become aggressive. Morale is low.

“We have young people who come and leave again after a day,” she says. “They tell us we’re earning cashier’s wages for a job with so much responsibility.”

After many disruptions in May, the situation in France is stabilizing, said Anne Rigail, chief executive of the French arm of Air France-KLM ( AIRF.PA ).

However, Paris’ Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports, where a union has called a strike on July 2, still need to fill a total of 4,000 vacancies, according to the operator.

And in the Netherlands, where unemployment is much lower at 3.3%, unfilled vacancies are at record levels and KLM’s Schiphol hub has seen hundreds of canceled flights and long queues.

Schiphol has now given a summer bonus of €5.25 an hour to 15,000 workers in security, baggage handling, transport and cleaning – a 50% increase for those on the minimum wage.

“This is certainly big, but it is still not enough,” said Joost van Doesburg of the FNV union.

“Let’s be honest, the last six weeks haven’t really been an advertisement for coming to work at the airport.”

Schiphol and London’s Gatwick last week unveiled plans to limit capacity over the summer, forcing more cancellations as airlines, airports and politicians wrangle over the crisis.

BLAME GAME

Luis Felipe de Oliveira, head of the global airport association ACI, told Reuters that airports are being unfairly blamed and airlines must work harder to address rising queues and costs.

Willie Walsh, head of the International Air Transport Association, the global airline industry group meeting in Qatar, dismissed talk of a breakdown in air travel as “hysteria”.

“It’s been bad for some consumers, and clearly the airlines and airports want to apologize for that,” he told Reuters.

“But we have to put it in context; it’s not in every airport…I haven’t seen the horror stories I’ve read about in the press,” he said on the sidelines of his group’s annual meeting in Doha.

Walsh has already blamed some of the disruption on the actions of “idiot politicians” in countries like Britain where frequent changes in COVID policy have discouraged employment.

The June 19-21 IATA meeting signals relative optimism for growth tempered by concerns over inflation. Read more

Such meetings have for years portrayed the industry as the positive face of globalization, connecting people and goods at increasingly competitive prices.

But Europe’s labor crisis has exposed its vulnerability to a fragile workforce, with the resulting rise in costs likely to raise prices and increase pressure for restructuring.

In Germany, for example, employers say many ground workers have joined online retailers such as Amazon ( AMZN.O ).

“It’s more comfortable to pack a hair dryer or a computer in a box than to lug a 50-kilogram suitcase in the fuselage of an airplane,” said Thomas Richter, head of the German ground employers’ association ABL.

Analysts say the labor squeeze could push up costs beyond the summer, but it’s too early to say whether the industry should retreat from the pre-pandemic model of rising volumes and cutting costs, which generated new routes and kept rates down. low.

However, for some departing employees, Europe’s scorching summer signals a wake-up call for passengers and bosses.

“I personally think flying is very cheap…I just don’t know how they can really go on,” said a former British Airways cabin crew member, 58, who has quit his job.

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Reporting by Toby Sterling, Caroline Pailliez, Farouq Suleiman, Tim Hepher; Additional reporting by Allison Lampert, Klaus Lauer; Writing by Toby Sterling, Tim Hepher; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle and Jan Harvey

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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