Passenger caps and staff shortages: a crisis for tourism

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Airplane wing view from window beautiful sky

By Dr Heather Jeffrey
Birmingham Business School in Dubai, University of Birmingham

In the midst of what has been a long, hot summer in the UK, many have been looking forward to getting away after over two years of severely reduced international mobility due to the global Covid-19 pandemic.

However, many have had their hopes of getting away dashed due to the current crisis being faced by the tourism and hospitality industries. In a bid to mitigate some of the consequences of a stark shortage of staff at the airport, a cap of 100,000 passengers per day has been enforced by Heathrow Airport, and isn’t expected to be lifted until 29th October.

After a summer of flight cancellations, delays, and queues out the door of some domestic airports, British Airways announced the suspension of short-haul flight ticket sales from Heathrow to comply with the cap, but other airlines decided to cancel and move flights to alternative airports. But Heathrow hasn’t been the only European airport to implement a cap on passenger numbers; Gatwick, Schiphol, and Frankfurt have all been reported as following suit.

The recent decision of British Airways to resume ticket sales has received less attention than the decision to suspend sales from Heathrow to destinations within three hours. Yet, a suspension of ticket sales from one airline will increase the price of tickets from others which could price holidaymakers out of the already inflated holiday market. However, as this suspension primarily affected last-minute sales to a range of short-haul destinations and there were alternative routes available from other airports or transport methods the impact on individual destinations would be small in comparison to the traffic light system which singled out and banned all travel to whole countries.

We are yet to see the consequences of a wider cap on passenger numbers at Heathrow and although a cap is one way of increasing airport capacity, with fewer passengers meaning a higher staff-to-passenger ratio, it will not tackle the underlying issue.

The shortage of hospitality and tourism staff (including aviation) is unsurprising in the UK, as the tourism industry was the worst hit by the pandemic with many staff being furloughed. In addition to this, an over-reliance on migrant workers meant that many lacking employment and facing both Brexit and health uncertainty chose to go home and have not returned. In the UK, the image of these jobs as low-skilled, low-paid, and hard work has meant that few willingly choose to enter this market when other options are available. There has, however, been some advancement in salaries, with Unite the Union securing a 13% pay rise for British Airways staff.

The current cap, however, adds to growing uncertainty for would-be travellers this year and will impact the international tourism industry as more of us decide to holiday at home or not at all. In order to ensure both the domestic hospitality industry and international tourism industries thrive in the future, strategies must focus on creating a sustainable pool of potential employees. There should be an emphasis on rewarding employees, both financially and non-financially, shifting the image of the jobs lowest in the hierarchy, creating solutions that work for everyone during off-seasons, parental leave, as well as looking to technology to provide automated solutions.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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