Analysis: Europe’s summer of dissatisfaction reveals labor crisis in travel sector

AMSTERDAM/PARIS/DOHA, June 19 (Reuters) – After 21 years as a service agent at Air France (AIRF.PA), Karim Djeffal quit his job to start his own job coaching consultancy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If that doesn’t work, I won’t go back to aviation,” says the 41-year-old bluntly. “Some shifts started at 4 a.m. and others ended at midnight. That could be exhausting.”

Djeffal offers a taste of what airports and airlines across Europe are facing as they try to hire thousands to meet resurgent demand, dubbed “revenge travel” as people try to make up for the holidays lost during the pandemic to balance.

Sign up now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com

Airports in Germany, France, Spain and the Netherlands have tried to offer perks like raises and bonuses to employees who refer a friend.

Leading operators have already reported thousands of vacancies across Europe. read more But the industry says European aviation as a whole has lost 600,000 jobs since the pandemic began.

But the suspension flash can’t come fast enough to put travelers at risk of canceled flights and long waits beyond the summer peak season, analysts and industry officials say.

The summer when air travel was expected to return to normal after a two-year pandemic vacuum is threatening to become the summer when the model of high-volume, low-cost air travel collapsed – at least in Europe’s sprawling integrated market.

Labor shortages and strikes have already disrupted London, Amsterdam, Paris, Rome and Frankfurt this spring.

Airlines like budget giant easyJet (EZJ.L) are canceling hundreds of summer flights and fresh strikes are brewing in Belgium, Spain, France and Scandinavia.

As industry leaders head for a summit in Qatar this week, a key issue will be who is to blame for the chaos between airlines, airports and governments.

“There’s a lot of mud-slinging going on, but all sides are to blame for not being able to cope with the resurgence in demand,” said James Halstead, managing partner at consultancy Aviation Strategy.

The airline industry says it has lost 2.3 million jobs worldwide during the pandemic, with ground handling and safety hit hardest, according to the Air Transport Action Group, which represents the industry.

Many workers are slow to return, lured by the ‘gig’ economy or opting for early retirement.

“They clearly have alternatives now and can switch jobs,” said ING senior economist Rico Luman.

While he expects travel pressures to ease after the summer, he says shortages could remain as older workers stay away and critically there are fewer younger workers willing to replace them.

“Even if there is a recession, the labor market will remain tight at least this year,” he said.

LOW MORALS

A key factor slowing hiring is the time it takes for new workers to obtain a security clearance, up to five months in France for the most sensitive jobs, according to the CFDT union.

Marie Marivel, 56, works as a security guard in baggage control at CDG for around 1,800 euros net a month.

She says shortages have led to an overhaul of staff. Stranded passengers became aggressive. Morale is low.

“We have young people who come and leave after a day,” she says. “They tell us we deserve cashier’s wages for a job with so much responsibility.”

After many disruptions in May, the situation in France is stabilizing, said Anne Rigail, managing director of Air France-KLM’s French arm (AIRF.PA).

Despite this, Paris airports Charles de Gaulle and Orly, where a union called a strike on July 2, still have a total of 4,000 jobs to fill, according to the operator.

And in the Netherlands, where unemployment is much lower at 3.3%, vacancies are at record highs and KLM’s Schiphol hub has seen hundreds of canceled flights and long queues.

Schiphol has now given 15,000 workers in security, baggage handling, transport and cleaning a summer bonus of €5.25 an hour – a 50% increase for minimum wage earners.

“Of course that’s huge, but it’s not enough,” said Joost van Doesburg from the FNV union.

“Let’s be honest, the last six weeks haven’t really been an advertisement for coming to work at the airport.”

Schiphol and London’s Gatwick last week unveiled plans to limit capacity over the summer, prompting more cancellations as airlines, airports and politicians bicker over the crisis.

REGISTERING DEBT

Luis Felipe de Oliveira, head of the global airports association ACI, told Reuters airports are being wrongly blamed and airlines should work harder to tackle queues and rising costs.

Willie Walsh, head of the International Air Transport Association, the global gathering of the airline industry in Qatar, has dismissed talk of an air travel collapse as “hysteria”.

Walsh, in turn, attributes part of the disruption to the actions of “idiot politicians” in countries like the UK, where frequent changes in COVID policy have deterred hiring.

The June 19-21 IATA meeting is expected to signal relative optimism on growth, tempered by inflation concerns.

Such gatherings have for years portrayed the industry as the positive face of globalization, connecting people and goods at increasingly competitive prices.

But Europe’s labor market crisis has revealed its vulnerability to a fragile workforce, with the consequent rise in costs likely to push up tariffs and increase restructuring pressures.

In Germany, for example, employers say many ground workers have switched to online retailers like Amazon (AMZN.O).

“It’s more convenient to pack a hair dryer or a computer in a box than to heave a 50-kilo suitcase into the fuselage of an airplane,” says Thomas Richter, chairman of the German employers’ association for ground handling ABL.

Analysts say labor shortages could push costs beyond the summer, but it’s too early to say whether the industry needs to back away from the pre-pandemic model of ever-rising volumes and cost-cutting that has created new routes and kept fares low .

For some departing employees, however, the hot summer in Europe means a wake-up call for passengers and bosses alike.

“Personally, I think the very cheap flying… I just don’t know how they can really keep up with that,” said a former British Airways cabin crew member, 58, who was fired.

(This story corrects the monthly salary in paragraph 19 from $2,100 to $1,800.)

Sign up now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com

Reporting by Toby Sterling, Caroline Pailliez, Farouq Suleiman, Tim Hepher; Additional reporting by Allison Lampert, Klaus Lauer; writing from Toby Sterling, Tim Hepher; Edited by Elaine Hardcastle

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.