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A toxic culture and ‘race to the bottom’: Pilots open up on why air travel is in chaos

  • Just this week, German carrier Lufthansa canceled nearly all its flights in Frankfurt and Munich, stranding some 130,000 travelers due to a one-day walkout by its ground staff striking for better pay.  
  • London's Heathrow Airport and Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, two of the largest travel hubs in Europe, slashed their passenger capacity and demanded that airlines cut flights to and from their airports.
  • Many working in the industry say airlines are playing a role in staff shortages as well as airports, and that the situation is becoming dire enough that it could threaten safety. 

The chaos engulfing many major airports in North America and Europe since summer began hasn't abated much, and news outlets and social media users continue to report on hordes of impatient travelers and mountains of misplaced suitcases.Source: Getty Images

Canceled flights. Long lines. Staff walkouts. Missing luggage. 

Sound familiar? The chaos engulfing many major airports in North America and Europe since summer hasn't abated much, and news outlets and social media users continue to report on hordes of impatient travelers and mountains of misplaced suitcases.

Just this week, German carrier Lufthansa canceled nearly all its flights in Frankfurt and Munich, stranding some 130,000 travelers due to a one-day walkout by its ground staff who were on strike for better pay.  

London's Heathrow Airport and Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport — two of the largest travel hubs in Europe —slashed their passenger capacity and demanded that airlines cut flights in and out of their airports, which angered both travelers and airline managers.

Carriers in the U.S. have also canceled and delayed tens of thousands of flights due to staffing shortages and weather issues. 

Airlines are vocally laying the blame on airports and governments. On Monday, the chief financial officer of low-cost European carrier Ryanair, Neil Sorahan, complained that airports "had one job to do."

Uncollected suitcases at Heathrow Airport. The U.K.'s biggest airport has told airlines to stop selling summer tickets.Paul Ellis | Afp | Getty Images

But many of those working in the industry say airlines are partly responsible for staff shortages as well, and the situation is becoming dire enough that it could threaten safety. 

CNBC spoke to several pilots flying for major airlines, all of whom described fatigue due to long hours and what they said was opportunism and a desire to cut costs as part of a toxic "race to the bottom" culture pervading the industry and worsening the messy situation that travelers are facing today.

All the airline staff spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to speak to the press.   

'Absolute carnage'

"From a passenger point of view, it's an absolute nightmare," a pilot for European low-cost carrier easyJet told CNBC. 

"Leading into the summer, it was absolute carnage because airlines didn't know what they were doing. They didn't have a proper plan in place. All they knew they wanted to do was try and fly as much as humanly possible – almost as if the pandemic had never happened," the pilot said. 

"But they forgot that they'd cut all of their resources."

The ensuing imbalance has "made our life an absolute mess, both cabin crew and pilots," the pilot added, explaining how a shortage of ground staff since the Covid pandemic layoffs — those who handle baggage, check-in, security and more — has created a domino effect that's throwing a wrench into flying schedules.

A bit of a toxic soup … the airports and the airlines share an equal level of blame.PilotEmirates Airline

In a statement, easyJet said that the health and well-being of employees is "our highest priority," stressing that "we take our responsibilities as an employer very seriously and employ our people on local contracts on competitive terms and in line with local legislation."

The industry is now hobbled by a combination of factors: not having enough resources for retraining, former staff not wanting to return, and poor pay that has largely remained suppressed since pandemic-era cuts, despite significantly improved revenue for airlines. 

"They've told us pilots we are on pay cuts until at least 2030 — except all the managers are back on full pay plus pay rises for inflation," a pilot for British Airways said. 

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