Divided European aviation sector seeks remedy for travel chaos

BRUSSELS, Oct 4 (Reuters) – European airlines and airports, reeling from delays that caused widespread disruption as demand soared after COVID-19, are counting the cost of efforts to avoid a repeat next summer.

Industry leaders gathered at the headquarters of air traffic control agency Eurocontrol sparred on Wednesday over who was responsible for the chaos that has upset passengers and politicians.

“We found ourselves in the news more than we would have liked over the summer,” Olivier Jankovec, chief executive of airport association ACI Europe, told a Eurocontrol conference.

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Labor or parts shortages and strikes have led to the cancellation of hundreds of flights, prompting some airports to introduce capacity restrictions and exposing small margins of error.

“We kind of survived the summer, but it wasn’t great and it shouldn’t happen again. We need to put the proper resources into the system to deal with the challenges,” said Wizz’s chief executive. Air (WIZZ.L), Jozsef Varadi.

For the low-budget carrier, this may mean recruiting exceptionally more people than it needs at the moment.

“We’re redesigning the operating model to make sure we’re building… more slack in the system, so we’re going to lose efficiency,” Varadi said.

“I don’t optimize for today, but I do optimize based on demand to make sure we stay as inexpensive as possible.”

Airports, too, are increasingly raising wages or handing out recruitment bonuses to rehire workers laid off during the pandemic. Many have defected to new economy jobs like carpooling.

Officials gave no estimate of the overall cost to make the network more resilient to delays, but airports said they faced a 7 billion euro ($6.98 billion) funding crisis.

RECRUITMENT MISFORTUNE

“We are no longer attractive and this is one of the problems facing airports,” said Arnaud Feist, CEO of Brussels Airport. Automation will increase, he added.

Those left behind were exposed to “unprecedented levels of violence” as tempers rose over the summer, said Livia Spera, general secretary of the European Transport Workers’ Federation.

The airline industry’s overall drive to contain costs is unlikely to be held back for long.

“I think it’s temporary. I don’t think it’s a structural change,” International Air Transport Association chief Willie Walsh said in an interview.

Airlines say they are caught between regulations requiring them to compensate consumers for delays while bearing the full cost of disruption from a long list of suppliers ranging from manufacturers to airports, air traffic controllers or ground service providers.

Airports complain that they have not secured the state support available to traditional carriers and point the finger at airlines.

“Some airlines were hiding their own staffing issues behind the airports and that didn’t help,” Jankovec told Reuters.

Walsh, who regularly clashed with Heathrow while running British Airways, pulled official airport data showing security wait times well above target at the London hub.

“If customers don’t come through on time, you end up with delayed departures, delayed arrivals. So everything gets cancelled,” he told Reuters.

Heathrow said rebuilding capacity quickly after the pandemic is “difficult” but the whole aviation supply chain is affected.

Now airlines and airports are once again at odds over rules for using airport slots over the coming winter.

A series of strikes by air traffic controllers adds to the tensions.

Eurocontrol, an umbrella agency for 41 countries, has called for action to lessen the impact of the strikes, such as a one-day brutal action that shut down much of French airspace last month.

“Workers have the right to strike and that must be protected, but overflights must be facilitated,” chief executive Eamonn Brennan told Reuters.

Controllers say the restrictions would be difficult to achieve in one part of Europe without infringing on controllers’ rights elsewhere.

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Reporting by Tim Hepher. Editing by Jane Merriman

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