During this summer 2022 we were able to read and hear from the news about the long queues and slowdowns in passenger processes at many airports. Most often the situation was escalated at security checks or baggage delivery processes. But what created this situation and why wasn’t it a problem at all the big airports?
The problem was that there were not enough personnel to ensure smooth and timely processes. The root cause to this was that when the pandemia started in 2020, a very large amount of aviation employees was laid off. The whole industry was hit hard and the business apart from some exceptions like air cargo was put on hold.
Pandemia was a very challenging time for every stakeholder in aviation to plan and predict the actions that would be needed to move on in an economically sustainable way. The borders between countries were closed with different rules and politically there was no common cross-border understanding about the conditions that would need to occur so that the industry could start getting up from its knees again. The stakeholders in aviation could only make various scenarios for the recovery.
There has been strange meltdowns of the industry earlier as well. We remember the ash cloud of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland in 2010. Almost the whole European airspace was closed for one week. Of course during that week there were scary moments since nobody knew how long this would last. But finally when the airspace was opened again, the air traffic started to recover in hours. The process for layoffs had started in many places, but luckily everybody was still at work. The recovery could happen nicely and smoothly.
The aviation industry is typically the first to collapse and the first to recover, when something major happens. The companies are good at downscaling the operations and the costs. This is of course a good thing for the owners of the companies and their investments. But how good and agile are the aviation companies and their strategies when the time comes to get up again?
The ideal situation would be that whenever there’s the need, the solution could be available at once. However, if we look at the aviation employment situation, a critical mass of the employees were laid off when the pandemia started. The employees needed jobs so they seeked them from somewhere else. It’s also important to understand that in aviation we talk mainly about safety&security critical jobs which means that many times there needs to be background checks before the employment. And then of course there has to be training especially for those that are completely new at these jobs. And finally, the payment could be better. Understanding all these points the aviation companies could easily make a conclusion that the employees might form a bottleneck for the rapid recovery after the pandemia.
To play safe, some airports had the strategy to start increasing the security check capacity only after the main restrictions were cancelled. The preparedness game was lost already at that point and the long security check queues were visible in many news pictures. The same happened with many ground handling companies when they didn’t have enough people to ensure the timely baggage handling. Or some airlines had to cancel flights because they didn’t have enough crew.
What we haven’t seen in the news is that in fact many airports, airlines or ground handling companies recovered very well. There can be many reasons for that, but many of them chose a different strategy. They chose to take some risk and start preparing for the recovery already when the first signs of light were visible. They started to get back and recruit employees earlier since they knew that it would take time. They wanted to make sure that their business would ramp up as quickly as possible and ensure the good passenger experience.
Whether the company chooses the playing it safe type of strategy or the preparedness type of strategy it might end up losing the game anyway. Aviation industry is a huge ecosystem. Every stakeholder’s action might affect your business as well. If the passengers are stuck in the security check queue, they can’t get to their flights on time. Or if the bags aren’t loaded to the aircraft on time, the bag might be left behind at the departure airport or the flight will be delayed causing problems to the passengers, airline and the airport.
In the recovery situation, what is good strategy or what is bad strategy? It depends on the viewpoint. The quick win is to play safe and avoid risk of extra costs. But it leads to horrible passenger experience, losses in long term and potentially problems in other parts of the industry. Being prepared might cost more in the beginning and lead to unwanted costs, if the scenario isn’t happening after all. But it ensures quick recovery and profitable business. And the good passenger experience.
The best case would be if the aviation companies could get out of their silos and have common understanding and strategy about these things so that they could support the recovery of each other. They could also communicate better and more credibly to the public. This would reduce the business risk for every company. More importantly, it would ensure and improve the passenger experience. After all, the passenger is the end user and therefore the payer of it all. Respect to the passenger should be remembered always in every approach and strategy.