International travel for the Easter holidays has got off to a bumpy start.
Thousands of people heading on their first trip abroad since coronavirus restrictions ended have been met with long queues, delays, and in some cases, cancelled flights.
Some airports and airlines have been struggling as passenger numbers gradually return to pre-pandemic levels.
And industry leaders have warned the situation isn’t going to improve for some time yet.
Manchester Airport appears to have been the worst hit after issues developed last weekend, while Heathrow, Gatwick and Birmingham have also been affected by delays and cancellations.
Travellers at Manchester Airport described scenes of “chaos” after several missed their flights, amid warnings that emergency services staff could be drafted in to help tackle the problems.
The disruption led to the airport’s managing director Karen Smart announcing that she would stand down.
Donna Mayfield queued for three hours at Manchester Airport but still missed her flight to Spain to see her 83-year-old mother for the first time since lockdowns began.
She said the situation was “horrendous”, while another traveller said they saw “customers and staff in tears”.
Former Monarch Airlines boss Tim Jeans, who is now director of Cornwall Airport Newquay, told the BBC’s Today programme it appeared Manchester Airport didn’t have correct plans in place to recruit and train staff in advance.
Passengers at Birmingham Airport also complained of long queues for those both arriving and departing. The airport apologised and said standards had not been met.
As Covid led to the government imposing lockdowns and travel restrictions, airport operations across the world shut down with fleets of planes grounded.
The furlough scheme helped, but couldn’t fully shield the aviation industry from the devastating impact, with thousands of job losses across airlines and airports. British Airways shed more than 10,000 jobs, while EasyJet closed its bases at Stansted, Southend and Newcastle, with the loss of 670 roles.
Amid the job uncertainty some workers opted for career changes.
Yet as borders reopened and demand for flights returned, the industry has found it difficult to recruit new staff quickly enough.
Reasons for the weakened workforce is due to a “combination of a very tight labour market, delays in the necessary government security checks for new and returning staff, as well as Covid-related staff absences,” according to the Airport Operators Association (AOA), which represents most UK airports ranging from Heathrow to Edinburgh.
One Resourcing, a specialist aviation and airport recruitment company, told the BBC that finding enough ground staff, including cleaners and baggage handlers, was proving very challenging.
Its boss Kevin O’Reilly said some other jobs were tempting workers away and some European Union nationals had left after Brexit.
“It’s always been a tough market to recruit for, but it’s become harder this year,” he said.
“Recruitment at airports doesn’t happen overnight, people must go through a thorough security vetting process to get an airside pass,” he added.
Meanwhile, Cornwall Airport Newquay boss Mr Jeans said it takes on average at least 12 weeks to recruit and train new security staff.
But staff shortages aren’t the only issue airports highlighted as a cause of queues.
Covid documents are still required by many countries, which has prolonged check-in times, and rather ironically, when people turn up too early, that only adds to queues.
John Strickland, director of transport consultancy JLS Consulting, has said the situation for airlines was going to be “very difficult” over the next couple of months.
Karen Dee, chief executive of the AOA, said at peak time passengers “may not have the experience they are used to”.
She said airports were working hard to recruit more staff in the run-up to the Easter holidays, and were “working with the UK government to resolve any delays in the necessary checks before staff can start work”.
Britain’s biggest airport Heathrow has said peak demand over the summer holidays could reach 85% of pre-pandemic levels and raised concerns about capacity.
Elsewhere, Edinburgh Airport has also warned holidaymakers to expect queues and disruption over the summer as it returns to full service.
And it’s not just UK airports being hit by delays – Dublin Airport has advised travellers to arrive three-and-a-half hours before their flight due to similar issues.
A number of well-known airlines, including EasyJet and British Airways have cancelled flights weeks in advance, however, in the run up to Easter, there have been a few services grounded at the last minute.
Package holiday operators appear less affected. For example, Jet2 is reporting its schedule is operating as planned.
EasyJet has blamed hundreds of its cancellations on Covid-related staff absences, with cabin crew and pilots among those out of action.
Meanwhile, BA has axed fewer flights at short notice due to Covid. But it took the decision two weeks ago to thin out its April and May schedules to ease some of the pressure.
BA has had other issues too. It has had several IT meltdowns in recent weeks which have caused delays to journeys and its Moscow flights are suspended as a result of the war in Ukraine.
The resumption of some long-haul routes has also been delayed because of the Covid situation in other parts of the world.(BBC)
•PHOTO: Travellers face long queues for check-in and security