Travel chaos and understaffed airports are a wake-up call: Britain is collapsing | Gaby Hinsliff

OWe finally returned home after the holidays on the third day of testing. Not bad, really, by the standards of this hellish summer. Better than being stuck for 21 hours in traffic outside Dover with a screaming toddler in the back and no toilet for miles. Or sitting on the asphalt for six hours in a heat wave without food or drink, as inmates on an American Airlines flight to New York would have been this week. At least I didn’t miss a wedding or a funeral, or even (like a desperate passenger on what must have been our flight home) trying and failing to return for a sister’s graduation.

All we had to deal with was a series of last minute changes to our tickets, followed by someone else’s plane breaking down on a runway in New Jersey and triggering a backlash in a now sadly familiar chain: delayed takeoffs, jumbo jets queuing on the tarmac unable to unload increasingly stressed passengers at the gates, a missed connection, a day and a night unexpectedly stranded at Newark airport. There’s only so much time you can kill by blasting at the Donald Trump “I’ll be back!” Kamala Harris commemorative t-shirts and socks for sale in the airport gift shop.

Yet we managed to catch another flight the next evening, which took off for a hopeful hour before it started leaking hydraulic fluid somewhere over Canada, causing a rushed return to Newark and a lined runway emergency vehicles. The rest, to be honest, is a blur. After more than 48 hours in transit, everything takes on a slightly dreamlike quality, hazy from living on a diet of airline snacks and never being sure what time it is in real life.

Travel chaos is the pinnacle of first world problems, of course, limited to those lucky enough to afford a vacation. But if it’s a luxury complaint, it’s also an illuminating complaint, a lens through which something can finally come into focus. Going in the summer is the kind of thing that most people take for granted. When even jumping on a Channel ferry becomes a heroic expedition against all odds, the feeling of things falling apart is palpable.

The Home Office has been failing in plain sight for years now. But when more than half a million people wait to renew their passports, these failures become impossible to hide even from those who wouldn’t normally notice. Nothing recalls the reality of Brexit, meanwhile, like the blocked highways in Kent. Now, a summer of airmageddon also threatens to expose some painful truths about post-pandemic working life.

Never knowingly underrated Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary blamed canceled flights on a government that ‘couldn’t run a candy shop’, as well as airports failing to prepare for a predictable summer rush, which seems at least partly true. Ryanair was more ready than some to lift travel bans; the company retained its staff during the lockdown (while imposing an unpopular pay cut) and was visibly infuriated by airports canceling slots at the last minute, which forced it to kick enraged passengers off flights otherwise viable. But this is not a universal story. We were told to arrive at Heathrow four hours before our flight, where we found the longest queues not at security but at terribly understaffed airline check-ins. Too many carriers who dumped their staff like hot potatoes during Covid seem surprised they haven’t come running back now that it’s over. Why be loyal to bosses who haven’t shown so much attention to you?

Worldwide, an estimated 400,000 aviation personnel were laid off, furloughed or warned they were at risk of being laid off in the spring and summer of 2020. Many now show, understandably, little desire to come back and bail out companies that made them feel disposable. Pilots who left the RAF a few years ago for a seemingly more comfortable life aboard civilian aircraft are now returning in the opposite direction. Thanks to an unusually tight job market, cabin crew are finding they have other options than an industry notorious for cost-cutting (Lisa Nandy, the shadow leveling secretary, whose constituency includes workers at Manchester Airport, says she has heard of crews taking Pot Noodles with them on layovers because their company meal allowances no longer cover the cost of dinner when they land). Among those who remained on board, resentment seems to be mounting. As we sadly watched departure boards in Newark light up with cancellations, Lufthansa cut hundreds of flights via Frankfurt and Munich after staff left. British Airways pilots threaten to strike next, over pay and conditions.

Long before Covid-19 hit, the aviation industry had become a skin of the teeth operation, operating on extremely tight margins. In the beginning, airlines squared the circle of fierce consumer demand for cheap fares by charging for things that were free before. Do you want to sit next to your own children, or take a real suitcase with you? It will be extra. But lately, things have taken a darker turn. The American Airlines pilots’ union recently accused the companies of “trying to fly more planes than they can actually fly and building those schedules to an inhumane level,” prompting the U.S. to request an investigation of the industry at large. If you can’t feel sorry for the stranded vacationers, spare a thought for the short-staffed crews bearing the brunt of their wrath, while watching their colleagues drop like flies in a new wave of Omicron. The captain of our aborted Newark flight was put off standby after the original pilot fell ill at the last minute, and when we finally took off again five hours late, it was only because the crew volunteered to extend his working day; board quickly, we have been warned, otherwise there will be no crew at all (there are legal limits on non-stop working hours). Watching exhausted-looking flight attendants rush through take-off routines was the first time I felt a twinge, rational or not, about the flight.

Memories fade almost as quickly as a vacation tan, so maybe next summer we’ll just forget what that one looked like. But not everything can be shaken off as easily as sand from a beach bag, and one of the lasting legacies of recent years could be a new sense of fragility: the insecurity born of a sense that loyalty is not unrewarded, jobs aren’t for life, things once taken for granted can no longer be guaranteed, and something somewhere may have been gutted beyond repair. Fasten your seatbelts: this means turbulence ahead.

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