Could EU aviation workers help solve the flight cancellation crisis?


The government is under mounting pressure to add aviation jobs to its Shortage Occupations list – reducing hurdles for EU workers to help fill gaps at overstretched airports and airlines.

On Tuesday alone British Airways cancelled almost 120 flights to and from Heathrow, while easyJet has so far grounded 60 departures to, from and within the UK – affecting an estimated 10,000 passengers.

Meanwhile the government insists that airlines and airports are to blame, and says Brexit provides huge benefits for UK air passengers.

These are the key questions and answers.

What’s the problem?

Since travel restrictions for arrivals to the UK were lifted 12 weeks ago, the UK aviation industry has struggled to meet the demand for flights. British Airways and easyJet, in particular, have been cancelling more than 100 flights between them every day.

In addition, passengers have had some dismal experiences at UK airports, particularly queuing for the security search operation.

Ground handling has been stretched, too, with long delays loading and unloading baggage from aircraft – and providing special assistance to passengers with reduced mobility.

What has Brexit got to do with it?

Paul Charles, chief executive of The PC Agency and a travel industry advocate, says: “We calculate that some 30 per cent of jobs in the UK aviation sector were filled by EU citizens before the pandemic – which was before the Brexit withdrawal agreement took effect at the start of 2021.

“The industry now needs to attract those EU workers back but the government won’t help the sector and continues to put up hurdles to hiring.

“It is unacceptable to limit aviation’s ability to fill the much-needed roles in airports and at airlines, and is simply leading to airlines cancelling flights despite the consumer appetite to travel. Government has to do its bit to free up fresh talent.”

Other senior figures in the travel industry have added their weight to the calls. Gemma Antrobus, Specialist Travel Agents’ chair of the Association of Independent Tour Operators, told Wake Up to Money on BBC 5 Live: “Brexit happened right in the middle of an international travel ban for our industry, at the time that we exactly left the EU.

“It then proceeded with five-and-a-half months of it being illegal to travel.

“So we never really saw that impact straight away. But losing so many skilled workers … has meant a contributing factor to the situation we find ourselves in.”

What exactly is the travel industry calling for?

Ms Antrobus says: “Bringing back in some skilled workers from the EU who would have the right clearances, who have done these jobs before here or in other countries.”

By filling jobs on the Shortage Occupations list, European Union citizens – and workers from elsewhere in the world – can apply for a low-cost working visa, and also face reduced hurdles for the salary required.

Existing occupations include care workers, engineers, vets, ballet dancers, graphic designers and welders.

What does the government say?

The government’s position on aviation after leaving the EU is: “Brexit is enabling us to improve the experience of UK air travellers.”

In the context of the current crisis, ministers believe the airline and airports need to sort themselves out. A Government spokesperson said: “The aviation industry is responsible for making sure they have enough staff to meet demand, and we have been clear that they must step up recruitment to make sure disruption is kept to a minimum.

“In addition, using our post-Brexit freedoms, we have changed the law to provide the sector with more flexibility when training new employees, which will help it to fill vacancies more quickly.

“We have also worked with Border Force to ensure preparations meet passenger demand.”

What does transport secretary Grant Shapps say?

His most recent message on Twitter was: “Boris Johnson has my support -–we must back him to get on with the job of delivering for the British people.”

On the subject of the tens of thousands of airline passengers stranded in various parts of Europe, Mr Shapps has specifically ruled out filling gaps in the sector by amending the government’s Shortage Occupation List to include aviation.

He told the BBC’s Sunday Morning programme: “The answer can’t always be to reach for the lever marked ‘More immigration’.

“There is not some pull that is going to relieve this.”

Mr Shapps added that the Brexit vote had been about moving away from hiring “cheap labour from somewhere else”.

How is Brexit helping UK airline passengers?

The government says it has been able to relax some of the rules for security clearance while a job applicant is being trained.

More broadly, in its publication The Benefits of Brexit, the government says leaving the EU means “a better experience for UK air travellers”:

  • increasing protections, such as access to compensation
  • enhancing competition
  • expand passenger choice
  • increase domestic connectivity to level up the UK

Do those benefits exist?

No. The government is consulting on reducing passenger compensation for domestic flights.

Competition and passenger choice has been sharply reduced as a result of the number of flight cancellations.

Domestic connectivity is much reduced, with an average of 24 cancelled domestic flights daily on British Airways alone.

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