Heathrow Airport boss says airlines are to blame for travel chaos

Business Insider US
The aviation industry is dealing with a messy summer travel season as demand has returned to pre-pandemic levels — but staffing has not.
  • London Heathrow Airport's chairman, Lord Paul Deighton, blamed airlines for the travel chaos.
  • Airlines cut ground-handling staff during the pandemic and aren't able to replace them now, he said.
  • That's because airlines aren't willing to pay market rates for the wages of baggage handlers, he said.
  • For more stories visit Business Insider.

The chairman of London Heathrow Airport has hit back at airlines blaming the aviation hub for the travel chaos.

Airlines have not managed to recruit enough ground handlers because they are underpaying them, Lord Paul Deighton wrote in the Telegraph on Tuesday. Such workers handle a wide range of jobs in airports from check-in to loading and unloading bags.

"It is a highly competitive, labor intensive, low margin business, characterized by short-term contracts. Airlines have driven down costs over the years, and this was one of the first costs they slashed during the pandemic," Deighton wrote.

As a result, over half of ground handlers across Europe have left the industry and many with driving skills have been snapped up as delivery drivers, he added. Ground-handling companies are trying to fill the positions, "but if their airline customers won't pay market rates, then they aren't able to fill the posts," Deighton wrote.

Heathrow has been asking airlines to meet demand with adequate ground-handling staff, but "in the last few weeks, we have seen a shocking increase in planes departing without bags and passengers having flights canceled after they were already on board," he added.

Deighton's defense of Heathrow Airport came on the back of criticism from airlines as the airport has capped how many passengers can fly out from the facility in a day in order to contain the chaos. A global aviation hub, Heathrow was the busiest airport in Europe before the pandemic.

Dubai-based airline Emirates at first straight out rejected Heathrow's request to limit summer ticket sales, calling the demand "entirely unreasonable and unacceptable," according to a statement on July 14. It agreed to cap ticket sales a day later after a meeting with the airport.

Akbar Al Baker, the CEO of Qatar Airways, also questioned the airport's new measures. "Heathrow has the right to restrict your flight because they cannot overload their facilities," he said on Monday, according to Reuters. "But my question to the management would be, they should have seen this coming and they should have taken mitigating actions."

Willie Walsh, the director general of the International Air Transport Association, also blamed Heathrow. "I am surprised Heathrow have not been able to get their act together better than this," Walsh told Reuters on Tuesday.

The aviation sector is dealing with a messy summer travel season with flight delays, lost bags, and chaos across the industry — and particularly in Europe — as demand has returned to pre-pandemic levels. Issues faced by airlines include staff shortages and bad weather.

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