A message from MAG CEO Charlie Cornish
Charlie Cornish, MAG CEO
First and foremost, I want to say that I understand passengers’ frustrations with the queues and congestion they’ve experienced in recent weeks, and I apologise to anyone who has been affected by the disruption.
We are committed to getting customers away on their trips, especially as we know many have waited such a long time to get back to travelling internationally. Having endured the worst crisis in our 84-year history, I can assure you that there is no one more pleased to see passengers back in our terminals than we are.
The UK aviation sector is now recovering quickly but for most of the last two years we have effectively been in survival mode. When the pandemic struck, we were faced with almost no income and huge fixed costs. Doing nothing was not an option. We had to cut costs just to survive – it was as simple as that. We reduced expenditure wherever we could, and as a last resort we had to offer colleagues the option of voluntary redundancy because of the uncertainty about when international travel would resume.
We said throughout the pandemic that we were confident in the long-term health of our business and wider sector, and that when restrictions were removed, huge pent-up demand for travel would be released. We also consistently said that we needed clarity on when travel restrictions would be removed, partly so that we could work out the right time to begin recruiting again.
As recently as January, with the Omicron variant spreading rapidly, tight travel restrictions remained in place and our passenger volumes were just a third of what they were pre-pandemic. No other sector has suffered as badly as the UK aviation industry – with other parts of the economy returning to pre-Covid levels way ahead of airport and airlines.
Since February, we have seen a stunning recovery in international travel. Demand has returned dramatically to more than 70% of pre-Covid levels in a matter of weeks, after travel rules were eventually relaxed last month.
But I want to be clear about the challenges associated with getting our operations back to what they were before Covid-19 in such a short space of time – and I also want to be clear about what people can expect in the next month or two as we tackle these challenges.
The simple fact is that we don’t currently have the number of staff we need to provide the level of service that our passengers deserve. Despite our efforts since last Autumn, the tight labour market around the airport has meant we have just not been able to hire people quickly enough to establish a full-strength team.
Practically, staff shortages mean that we cannot open all the security lanes we need and at times, this results in longer queues than we want to see. While we still expect most passengers to get through in less than 30-40 minutes, there will be times over the next few months when waiting times will rise to between 60 and 90 minutes.
We understand that people will feel anxious about missing their flights when they see queues of this length. So for now, we are advising passengers to arrive at the airport three hours before their flight leaves, to allow enough time to check-in, get through security and reach the departure gate. If passengers follow that advice, and allow more time than normal, we are confident they will get away on their travels.
These measures are temporary and we are focused on getting back to normal in time for the peak summer season. As new staff join us, the operational pressure we are facing will ease and queue times will begin to come down.
To achieve this, we are busy recruiting new officers and taking them through the rigorous training and testing needed to work in aviation security. We are doing this in one of the most challenging employment markets we have seen, with competition from many other businesses that find themselves in the same position. These vetting processes are rightly demanding, but they have made it more difficult for us to recruit the people we need, with more than half of those we offer jobs to finding another vacancy before the process is complete.
But the response has been positive and we have interviewed more than 4,000 people over the last two months. Many have already started in the operation and more than 200 people are currently going through the security checks that are needed before they can start training. We expect around 250 new security staff to start in the operation by early May.
While we are advising passengers to expect longer queues than usual as we continue our recruitment drive, I also want to be clear that a huge amount of work is going into improving the situation in the short-term. Our focus for the next four weeks is on delivering a more predictable and reliable level of service for passengers.
A key strand of that is working with Trade Unions and our existing, hugely dedicated workforce to maximise flexibility in the operation. For example, we know many colleagues already working in security are willing to do more hours, or even to postpone holidays to help out. These are entirely voluntary options, and colleagues have been asking us what else they can do to support. Colleagues with the right level of security clearance, but who don’t currently work in the operation, are also being deployed to support wherever possible.
We recognise that passengers want to know what to expect. We will be deploying more staff to help people when there are queues, and we are also working to provide more real-time information to our customers both online and in our terminals.
We are taking forward these measures with the overall objective of enabling airlines to continue to operate their full schedule of services in the weeks ahead. The alternative in the short-term would be to cap capacity and for airlines to cancel flights, as other airports and airlines are doing.
But this would cause enormous disruption to holidays, business trips and long-awaited visits to see friends and family. We do not think cancellations are what our customers want to see. While we know they don’t want long queues either, we are committed to operating all flights safely and know that the steps we are taking will improve service levels week by week.
As part of tackling these challenges, we have been working closely with our airlines at Manchester and we are agreed that, in the circumstances, this is the best course of action. None of us want to disrupt the travel plans that our customers have made, some of which have been disrupted several times already because of the pandemic.
Together, we are committed to getting people away on their holidays and trips abroad with the best possible airport experience. In the short term, we know this could fall short of what customers expect, but I can assure people that we will be working hard to get passengers through the airport as quickly as we can over the coming weeks.
I do also want to take a moment to thank all of our colleagues for their hard work and dedication at this extremely challenging time. We know the pressure they are working under and the pride they take in their work, which is hugely appreciated.
I cannot apologise enough for the disruption people have faced. We are proud of our role as the UK’s gateway in the North, and as a major source of employment and economic value for the region. We will be back to where we need to be soon, and are working as hard as we can to get there as quickly as possible.