Over the past two years, as demand for international travel rebounds to pre-pandemic levels, the aviation sector has faced significant challenges in recalibrating capacity, particularly in ground handling.
The post-pandemic reopening of all international borders and the surge in demand it created is clearly welcome news for airlines. But it has also highlighted structural issues in an industry which has faced unprecedented levels of disruption over recent years.
As we saw in the summer of 2022, when Heathrow airport placed a passenger cap on its operations, ground handling capacity has struggled to keep pace with the new spike in demand.
Heathrow explained its decision at the time: “In the second half of June , as departing passenger numbers regularly exceeded 100,000 a day…demand had started to exceed the capacity of airline ground handlers and we took swift action to protect consumers by applying a cap on departing passenger numbers, better aligned with their resources.”
Speaking to Travel Weekly, Heathrow’s Chief Executive, John Holland-Kaye, added “We can’t ignore that Covid has left the aviation sector deeply scarred, and the next few years will need investment to rebuild capacity, with a focus on safety, consumer service, resilience and efficiency. Airlines need to recruit and train more ground handlers [and] airports need catch up on underinvestment during the Covid years”.
In March 2023, in response to these issues, the UK Government outlined 10 focus areas for the UK aviation industry to have to ensure ground operations are back to full capacity, and to mitigate the risk of further travel disruption. The report acknowledges that staffing shortages were a major factor in last summer’s aviation disruption and, as part of its wider 22-point plan for longer-term improvements, it also proposed:
- Further exploration of improving how ground handlers’ performance is measured and monitored
- Better engagement between ground handlers and the government, including through the new Aviation Services UK trade association
- Continued support from the government and industry’s flagship Generation Aviation programme for recruitment, retention, upskilling and outreach
- Establishing a series of working groups involving airports, airlines and ground handlers to address areas including airport ID processes and performance standards
Solving labour shortages
According to Oxford Economics, the global aviation industry has lost over 2.3 million jobs since 2019. The massive staff reductions during the pandemic have led to a recruitment and retention crisis further exacerbated by rising inflation and wider economic uncertainty. Indeed, a survey conducted by IATA found that 37% of ground handling professionals anticipated staffing shortages until the end of 2023 and beyond, and 60% felt they didn’t have enough qualified staff to ensure smooth operations.
Attracting new workers to an industry known for long hours and physically demanding work is particularly challenging. But retaining the talent is also problematic. Research earlier this year from SAP reveals that 33 percent of the travel workforce say they’re planning to leave the industry in the next 12 months because of added workload and stress.
However, the SAP research also identified three key focus areas which could significantly enhance staff retention and recruitment in the aviation industry.
- Ensuring an optimised supply chain to ensure a constant availability of resources and equipment (34%)
- A greater understanding of why employees leave and how they can retain them (33%)
- Better processes to speed up onboarding processes and checks for new hires, particularly for recruiting international talent (32%)
“The aviation industry has faced challenges like no other in the past three years,” says Nathan Lewis, Sales Director at Contego Aviation Solutions. “Its success is vital to ensuring UK productivity and global competitiveness and a well-resourced ground handling sector is an integral part of that. Ensuring that individuals working in the sector feel safe, secure and equipped to do their jobs will be essential in allowing the industry to manage the demands of the new operating environment”.
Unlike the summer of 2022, this season’s cancellations were not driven by capacity. Air space restrictions imposed by the war in Ukraine and technical failure in air traffic control are largely beyond the control of airline operators, but they have proven an unwelcome thorn in the side of the industry’s attempts to rebuild in the post-pandemic era.
The industry has made great strides in recovering from the challenges of recent years. But building long-term structural resilience in the sector will require innovation, government support and investment in the talent and tools to carry out ground handling services.
Contego Aviation Solutions specialises in PPE, protective clothing, accessories and equipment for the aviation industry, where health and safety is paramount. Our team of safety workwear experts supports our aviation customers in the to design and manufacture of specific new products to meet the needs of a fast- changing industry. This ensures they – and we – remain at the very forefront of ground handling PPE and safety workwear technology.