(CNN) — British flight attendant Chris Major has worked in the aviation industry for over two decades. He has seen the industry suffer and recover in the wake of 9/11, SARS and foot and mouth disease.
Now, Major is on the front lines of what he believes is the worst aviation crisis yet: the 2022 summer of travel chaos. Major, who serves as chairman of the Joint Aircrew Committee of the European Transport Workers Federation, which represents European flight attendants and pilots, says flight crews are struggling.
As global travelers return to the skies after a pandemic-enforced hiatus, airlines and airports around the world are scrambling to match supply with demand.
The result is flights being canceled left right and centre, luggage being misplaced and travelers losing faith in the entire aviation industry. According to Major, it is “absolutely shambolic”.
His words have been echoed by flight attendants around the world.
“Lack of staff, delays, cancellations, no baggage — I think it’s a very difficult situation for everyone,” Daniel Casa Mbuambi, a Germany-based Lufthansa flight attendant, told CNN Travel.
“There’s some sort of breakdown that I believe should have been preventable,” says US flight attendant Eli Malis.
Front line in the sky
When aviation ground to a halt in the early days of the pandemic, most airlines and airports either furloughed or laid off many ground and air workers. Many carriers have been operating a skeleton staff for the best part of the past two years.
Now, travel demand is back, and the industry is struggling to catch up and rehire. With flight attendants still on the books, it’s “a very difficult situation,” says Lufthansa’s Casa Mbuambi, who is also chairman of the German flight attendant union UFO.
Crews say this stress means occasionally operating flights with minimal staff on board, as Casa Mbuambi describes, or aircrew sleeping at the airport, as Ellie Malis says.
Malis, who is also the government affairs representative at the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents American Airlines’ air crews, also described “uncomfortable” situations where crews, delayed on incoming flights, would rush to the airport to do their next job. can be seen. .
“Sometimes passengers are happy that you’re coming because it means their plane is leaving, or they’re upset — they think it’s your fault that the flight is delayed when you worked two flights at once. Can’t. , although I’m sure the airlines wish we could,” she says.
Flight attendants say such conditions, along with unpredictable schedules, wreak havoc on the mental and physical well-being of the crew.
“Sickness levels have gone through the roof, fatigue levels have gone through the roof, because no [flight attendants are] Denial or they are protesting in any way. It’s just that they can’t cope – they just can’t cope with constant change,” says a British flight attendant major.
Flight cancellations have become commonplace in the US this summer. Pictured here: Tourists walk past American Airlines planes at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in July.
Nathan Howard/Getty Images
While airlines suggest the current problems are due to staff absences, that’s disappointing, Malis says.
“It’s kind of insulting that we are being blamed for any kind of labor shortage or operational mismanagement, because airlines have failed to plan adequately,” she adds.
“Flight attendants are being maxed out, working the longest days we’ve ever had, with short rest periods overnight and that makes you sick, which leads to fatigue and exhaustion and weakens your immune system. “
Malis says American Airlines recently scrapped an absence policy that exposed crew members to disciplinary action if they took a Covid-related leave. An airline spokesperson did not comment on the change to CNN, but said “taking care of our crew members at all times, including when they are away from home, is a priority.”
An American Airlines representative said the airline was not aware of recent reports of crew members sleeping at the airport.
“If we believe there may be a problem with crew accommodation, all hands are on deck to prevent that from happening,” the representative said.
A Lufthansa spokesman said the aviation industry as a whole “suffers from bottlenecks and staff shortages, particularly significant during peak periods.”
A Lufthansa spokesman added that the post-pandemic travel boom “was expected — but not at this magnitude.” Lufthansa recently canceled several summer flights, a spokesman said, with the aim of reducing daytime cancellations.
While Covid- and fatigue-related downtime among Lufthansa’s ground staff has reached 30%, the German airline said crew and pilot downtime is “significantly down in the single digits.” A Lufthansa spokesman said that, as a result, there was no need to operate flights at minimum crew capacity “on normal crew patterns”.
State of the Industry
Flight attendants say unpredictable schedules are difficult due to cancellations and delays. Pictured here: A flight information board showing canceled flights at Germany’s Frankfurt Airport in July.
Ben Kilb/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Flight attendant contracts allow for flexible work days, so flying is always a job that comes with a degree of unpredictability. But as the industry has expanded, flight attendants say this uncertainty has increased.
Major suggests unpredictable schedules, combined with current wage conditions, are why workers who left the industry during the pandemic are not returning.
“There’s a reason they won’t come back,” he says. “The industry has created its own problems.”
Malis echoes this: “Why would anyone want to apply to be a flight attendant or any other airline worker when we’re making bones?”
Major believes the problem can only be solved by the industry admitting there is a problem — and a problem he sees as inherent in the current mode of operation, not unique to post-Covid flying.
US flight attendant Ellie Malis
Through his work for ETF, the Pan-European Aviation Union, Major has been advocating for increased aircrew wages to address the rising cost of living and improve work-life balance.
Kassa Mbuambi agrees. “We have to provide better conditions,” he says, adding that his Germany-based union is in regular talks with other cabin crew associations in Europe to work through solutions.
He thinks higher pay and more structured working conditions will better reflect the role of flight attendants.
“We are not only there to serve you some drinks, but we are also there to guarantee safety,” says Casa Mbuambi.
American flight attendant Malice says passenger disruption has become less of an issue in the US since the mask mandate was lifted.
But while the mask-related issues may have died down in the US, they are rumbling elsewhere. Casa Mbuambi and Major suggest that different countries have different rules that cause constant frustration among European tourists. This frustration can be compounded when passengers are also facing travel disruptions.
“We currently have many passengers traveling without their bags,” says Lufthansa’s Casa Mbuambi. “So of course, you have a lot of angry passengers.”
Casa Mbuambi’s plea to the traveling public is that aviation workers are “doing what we can.”
“All the staff — it doesn’t matter if they’re ground staff or cabin crew — do the best they can. But if you don’t have enough staff, you can’t solve. Every problem.”
Many travelers are worried about losing luggage while traveling this summer. Pictured here: Uncollected suitcases at London’s Heathrow Airport.
Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images
The chief echoes this sentiment, reminding passengers that air crews feel the frustration of traveling from the other side as well. He is going on a family vacation soon and politely considers the interruption inevitable.
Malis points out that the summer vacation season always stretches the system, suggesting that this fall “may be a great opportunity to reset, to make sure our system is working properly to handle the increased traffic.”
But, like Major and Casa Mbuambi, she thinks a long-term solution can only come from reforming the current system.
“We, as flight attendants, we’re right there with our passengers, we’re with them, we feel their frustration, if not more, because it’s happened to us so often, because we fly for a living.” Malice. says
“We want to do right by our passengers, we can see these poor people who are trying to get to where they need to go, we can read their stress, we can see their anxiety and so we really want That they get there.Wherever they want to go, we want to hopefully send them off with a smile.
A flight attendant’s guide to dealing with the chaos of summer travel
Here are some of flight attendant Ellie Malis’ top tips for traveling right now:
– Pack your patience: Malice suggests that travelers should leave home expecting some form of travel disruption. “I think at least putting your expectations in the right place,” she says.
– Pack your snacks: Be prepared to arm yourself with any delay, advises Malis. Along with your snack of choice, make sure you have an empty water bottle and fill it up as soon as your security is over. If your flight is grounded on the runway for any length of time, or if you find yourself in a long line, you will be hydrated and fed. Also, some airlines are still not operating their pre-Covid on-board food service, and even if they are, there may be service disruptions: “If the weather is bad, if it’s really rough, there’s no guarantee that we’ll You’ll be able to serve the drink safely,” Malis explains.
– Book early morning flights: Malice suggests that earlier flights may be less disruptive, so booking first thing in may sound good. “Usually the operation is like a reset in the morning,” she says. And if you are transferred to a later flight, if you are at the first airport, there should be more options available. Weather-related delays are also more common in the afternoon and evening, Malis adds.
– Skip buffer time: Malice advises to try to avoid tight connections where you can. And if you’re traveling for an important event like a wedding, try to fly a day or two in advance if you can to give yourself peace of mind.
Top photo: An airport display lists canceled flights at Frankfurt Airport on July 27, 2022. Source: Daniel Rowland/AFP/Getty Images