Ground handling providers are facing severe skills shortages and challenges in retaining and recruiting staff as the global airline industry slowly recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic, which virtually halted activity at airports around the world in the second quarter of 2020.
Industry experts warn there will be challenges as ground handling operations ramp up to meet growing demand as the aviation industry’s recovery from Covid-19 progresses.
“Overcoming labour shortages, ensuring safety with strict adherence to global standards and digitalisation and modernisation will be critical to achieving a scalable restart,” points out Monika Mejstrikova, IATA’s Director of Ground Operations.
She said ground handling providers are facing severe skills shortages and challenges in retaining and recruiting staff.
“Many skilled employees have left the industry and are not coming back. And recruiting, training and accrediting new staff can take up to six months. So, it is critical that we retain current staff and find more efficient ways of onboarding new personnel,” said Mejstrikova, who also outlined a number of priority solutions at a recent industry event in Prague.
Staffing shortfalls have been a major challenge for airlines, which encouraged thousands of workers to take leaves of absence or early retirement to cut the carrier's payroll during the pandemic, noted CNBC.
“Now they are racing to hire pilots, reservations agents, flight attendants and other workers. Sick calls have also contributed to disruptions,” the media outlet says.
Lower staffing levels make it harder for airlines to recover from routine problems like bad weather.
In the United States, a recent spate of high-profile flight cancellations put a spotlight on worker shortages at some US airlines, triggering warnings of new delays over the holiday period as airlines scramble for staff.
Reports say a huge shortage of pilots, flight attendants, gate agents, baggage handlers and customer service staff is being felt in the world’s large aviation market.
This has forced many carriers to cancel a record number of flights ahead of the lucrative travel period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.
It is a dramatic shift for an industry that was grappling with surplus labour as coronavirus hammered air travel just a year ago, and according to Reuters, “is the latest evidence of a widening labour crunch.”
As demand in the United States roars back, carriers are obviously struggling to keep up.
Rising demand and labour shortages have left airlines more vulnerable to bad weather, which frequently mars end-year holiday travel. Analysts say that could mean more travel disruption.
"If there's any weather involved, you can expect flight cancellations," said Cowen and Co analyst Helane Becker.
In a staff memo recently, US airline American said it expects to have 4,000 new employees in the current quarter. It is also recalling nearly 1,800 flight attendants from long-term leave.
The rush to hire in a tight labour market risks driving up costs at a time when soaring jet fuel prices are squeezing profits, industry experts say.
Based on a modest recovery scenario, researcher OliverWyman believes a global pilot shortage will emerge in certain regions no later than 2023 and most probably before.
However, with a more rapid recovery and greater supply shocks, this could be felt as early as late this year.
“Regarding magnitude, in our most likely scenarios, there is a global gap of 34,000 pilots by 2025. This could be as high as 50,000 in the most extreme scenarios.
“Eventually, the impact of furloughs, retirements, and defections will create very real challenges for even some of the biggest carriers,” OliverWyman says.
In its analysis, OliverWyman says North American, Asia Pacific, and the Middle East are likely to see the largest shortages while Europe, Africa, and Latin America remain closer to equilibrium.
In North America, with an aging pilot population and heavy use of early retirements, the shortage reemerges quickly and is projected to reach over 12,000 pilots by 2023 — 13% of total demand.
However, Asia Pacific, with a faster growth trajectory will surpass this by the end of the decade with a projected shortage of 23,000 pilots by 2029.
“This can have real implications on the timing and depth of regional shortages as pilots migrate to areas of opportunity, potentially accelerating or deepening shortages in other regions,” OliverWyman noted.
To avoid labour shortage and retain skilled staff, IATA’s Mejstrikova suggests that governments should include ground handlers in wage subsidy programmes.
To speed up training processes, she has suggested the use of competency-based training, assessments, increase of online training formats and harmonisation of training requirements.
To increase the efficiency of staff utilisation, she said a training passport should be developed that would mutually recognise skills across ground handlers, airlines and airports.