Passengers are facing long delays, large queues, and cancellations at UK airports. This Insight examines the causes of this disruption, including increased demand, staff shortages and peak travel times.

Who is responsible? 

More people are taking flights

There were restrictions on international travel both into and from the UK during the coronavirus pandemic. These significantly affected the number of people able to travel.  

According to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), there were 255.2 million international passengers in the UK in 2019, averaging 21.2 million each month. In comparison, there were 62.5 million international passengers in 2020, over half (32.4 million) of which were in January and February before the first UK national lockdown. In 2021, these annual figures decreased further to 49.8 million.  

Passenger traffic has accelerated since restrictions eased. In January 2022, there were 5.8 million international passengers, a third (36%) of the pre-pandemic level of 16.3 million in January 2019. This increased to 15.7 million in May 2022, which is 68% of the pre-pandemic level of 23.0 million in May 2019. 

A chart showing international terminal passenger traffic in UK airports from 2020 onwards. It shows that air passengers sharply reduced in April 2020 and there has been a spike since January 2022.

Source: UK Civil Airport Authority (CAA), UK Airport Data, Table 10.1 EU and Other International Passenger Traffic. 

Staff shortages  

As travel increases, the aviation industry has been unable to rehire quickly enough to cope.  

Airlines, airports and ground handlers laid off thousands of staff when travel restrictions were in place during the pandemic. The exact numbers of staff laid off are unknown, but Oxford Economics analysis, reported in the Financial Times, suggests there were 2.3 million fewer jobs in the global aviation industry in September 2021 compared to pre-Covid levels. 

Employees have left for different industries, there is high demand in the labour market, low wages in the industry, and training and security clearance requirements can take up to 16 weeks between staff recruitment and actual deployment.  

These recruitment issues mean that there is a mismatch between traveller demand and staffing levels. Reporting to BBC News, aviation travel consultant Paul Charles said staffing levels are 20-30% lower than they should be, with airline and ground workers calling in sick in recent weeks due to Covid-19. 

Passengers may also face strike disruption from the aviation industry over summer. For instance, 500 British Airways check-in staff at Heathrow voted to strike over pandemic-related 10% pay cuts that the airline had not fully restored before a pay deal was agreed on 7 July 2022.

How many aviation jobs were lost in the UK? 

Acuity Analysis estimates the total aviation job losses in the UK was 46,247 between the onset of the pandemic and March 2021.  

According to Airlines UK, airlines cut about 30,000 jobs since the start of the pandemic, which employed 74,000 people in 2019. To illustrate, British Airways cut around 10,000 of its 42,000 workers in 2020. 

Thousands of jobs were also cut from airports and organisations supporting aviation. For example, ground handler Swissport, which had 8,500 staff at UK airports, almost halved its workforce in 2020. 

Peak travel periods  

Generally, cancellations are relatively low. Aviation analytics company OAG reported that less than 1.1% of flights were cancelled from UK airports in May 2022. But cancellations have become more concentrated over peak periods, including weekends and school holidays. Over the Platinum Jubilee bank holiday, which coincided with many schools’ half-term breaks, up to 4% of UK flights were cancelled.  

The OAG also identifies peak travel times, finding it’s not unusual for approximately 13% of an entire days flights to leave first thing in the morning, with 6am to 7am often the busiest hour. Any disruptions at these peak times can have a domino effect on the rest of the day. 

These peak travel periods can impact on passenger’s experience at airports. At Heathrow 20% of non-EEA passengers had an immigration waiting time of over 45 minutes in May 2022. At Manchester a quarter of flights were delayed for over an hour in April 2022 and at Gatwick, only half of Jet2’s last bags were delivered within 35 minutes in March 2022.  

Overselling and cancelling flights 

Companies have been criticised for overestimating how many flights they will be able to operate. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said airlines have “seriously oversold flights and holidays” relative to their capacity to deliver.  

Airlines have increased flight capacity, with the OAG reporting that three times more seats were available in the week commencing 4 July 2022 compared to the week commencing 5 July 2021 in the UK. This equates to 85% of pre-pandemic levels from the week commencing 8 July 2019, which has placed pressure on the aviation supply chain. 

A chart showing the scheduled global airline capacity based on seats from 2019 onwards. It was at its lowest capacity in 2020 and highest in 2019. In July 2022 it was at just under 500 million seats.

Source: OAG Insights, Three month forward looking scheduled capacity , 10 May 2022.

While it is common practice for airlines to overbook a flight, considering the number of no-shows expected, thousands of passengers were affected by last-minute flight cancellations over the Easter and half-term holidays.  

Following this, the aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority wrote to airlines on 14 June 2022 telling them to ensure their summer timetables were “deliverable… based on the resources you and your contractors expect to have available”. 

To reduce disruptions, several airlines have pre-emptively cancelled scheduled flights. For instance, British Airways has cut over 10% of its summer schedule. This has been encouraged by the government’s one-off ‘amnesty’ for airlines to return their take-off and landing slots. 

International comparison and the UK’s distinct challenges 

The disruption is not unique to UK airports. In the US over 1,400 flights were cancelled and 14,000 delayed over the 4 July weekend 2022. In Europe, Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport cancelled one-quarter of its flights on the 9 June. and Dutch airline KLM suspended passenger flights to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport on 4 June. 

While the common problem is a shortage of workers following industry-wide redundancies, the UK does face distinctive challenges including Brexit and its approach to the Covid-19 pandemic. These were discussed at a BEIS Select Committee session on flight cancellations on 14 June.  

Travel journalist Simon Calder estimated that 30% of airport staff were EU nationals before the pandemic, indicating that Brexit could have reduced airports’ employment pool. While TUI’s chief executive, David Burling, said “The shutdown in the [UK] aviation industry was more dramatic than in other countries in Europe”.  

Will airport chaos continue this summer? 

Airport disruption is expected to continue this summer, especially at larger airports and hubs with complicated operations. The CEO of Heathrow Airport, John Holland-Kaye, warned that the aviation sector might take up to 18 months to “completely restore capacity”. 

Recent research by Air Council International (ACI), Europe’s trade body for airports, found that among Europe’s airports: 

  • 66% expect flight delays to increase  
  • 16% expect flight cancellations to increase  
  • 15% expect flight schedules to be adapted 
  • 35% expect operations will be affected by staff shortages during summer 2022 and beyond 

Disruptions could improve if the sector can continue to hire new employees, speed up security clearance and adapt airline schedules to reduce traffic peaks. These measures are set out in the Department for Transport’s 22-point plan to tackle aviation disruption ahead of the summer season published on 30 June 2022. 

Further reading 

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) provides an overview of passengers rights and how to make a claim if a flight is delayed, cancelled, overbooked or missed.

About the author: Iona Stewart is a statistics researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in transport.