The chaos at UK airports intensified on Monday as easyJet cut thousands of flights over the summer to minimise the risk of disruption, while passengers at Heathrow faced cancellations caused by a “baggage mountain” .
Meanwhile, airports capping flights could face legal challenges from service companies to recover the costs of recruiting staff who may no longer be needed.
Warwick Brady, the chief executive of the aviation services company Swissport, told Reuters: “I think that there’s going to be some challenges, I suspect legally, to putting caps on airlines.
“We recruited enough people for the summer schedule and they cut the schedules, so we now have too many people. We are going to have a cost overhang because they are cutting.”
The Department for Transport and the Civil Aviation Authority told carriers last week to review their schedules and ensure flights were “deliverable”, after post-lockdown staff shortages left airlines and airports unable to keep up with an increase in travel as Covid restrictions lifted.
EasyJet announced on Monday that in response to subsequent caps on flights at two of its biggest airports, London Gatwick and Amsterdam, it was “proactively consolidating” a number of flights to give customers time to review their trips and offer an opportunity to rebook.
Flights from other airports are also likely to be affected.
“There are challenges across the whole of Europe and in other parts of the network. But that’s something we have to work through … We’ve had outages in Paris, we’ve had challenges at Gatwick, we’ve had challenges in Geneva as well,” said the chief executive, Johan Lundgren.
The airline said it could not provide an exact number of the flights it intended to cancel but that it would probably run about 90% of the 160,000 it offered in summer 2019, having previously estimated it would reach 97% of pre-Covid flight capacity between July and September.
That suggests about 11,000 easyJet flights could be scrapped over the coming months.
That is despite an increase in demand, with the number of travellers in April and May this year having risen to seven times the level in 2021.
EasyJet said it expected most customers to be able to rebook on to alternative flights, many of which would be on the same day as they originally planned to travel. The airline also confirmed that customers would be notified as soon as possible about flights it intended to cancel over the coming months.
“The ongoing challenging operating environment has unfortunately continued to have an impact, which has resulted in cancellations,” Lundgren said.
“Coupled with airport caps, we are taking pre-emptive actions to increase resilience over the balance of summer, including a range of further flight consolidations in the affected airports, giving advance notice to customers and we expect the vast majority to be rebooked on alternative flights within 24 hours.
“We believe this is the right action for us to take so we can deliver for all of our customers over the peak summer period in this challenging environment.”
EasyJet said it did not intend to raise prices as a result of its cancelled flights – likely to result in higher demand for fewer seats. The airline’s shares fell 3.5% on Monday morning.
Ryanair rubbed salt in the wounds by announcing it was launching hundreds of “rescue flights” for disappointed customers at UK airports to its summer schedules, as rivals including British Airways and TUI as well as easyJet have cut back.
Meanwhile, Heathrow asked carriers at Terminals 2 and 3 to cut about 10% of their schedules on Monday to help limit the problems that resulted in thousands of passengers’ baggage piling up unclaimed over the weekend.
The airport said that only 30 flights and 5,000 passengers were affected on Monday, after many had faced lost or delayed bags from international flights.
A Heathrow spokesperson said: “We apologise unreservedly for the disruption passengers have faced over the course of this weekend. The technical issues affecting baggage systems have led to us making the decision to request airlines operating in Terminals 2 and 3 to consolidate their schedules on Monday 20 June.
“This will enable us to minimise ongoing impact and we ask that all passengers check with their airlines for the latest information.”
As arguments continued to play out in the sector over the reasons for the chaos, easyJet said it had recently turned down about 8,000 applications from EU nationals who were no longer eligible to work for the company in the UK because of Brexit.
“Pre-pandemic we turned down probably about 2% of people for nationality reasons … and that number is [now] about 35-40%. So, of course the pool is smaller,” Lundgren said.
New recruits, meanwhile, were waiting an extra month to receive their official crew identification cards, with long security checks extending the process to 14 weeks.
A strike at Brussels airport led to the cancellation of all departing flights from the Belgian capital on Monday.