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Qatar Airways Chief Suggests Brexit Factor in London Heathrow Issues

Edward Russell
July 20th, 2022 at 6:52 AM EDT

Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker has made the implication that the UK’s departure from the EU, or Brexit, may be a contributing factor in the staffing-related operational woes at its airports this summer.

“Another mistake is, with Brexit, there are certain professions that cannot be done by non-British. These are the kind of works that were being done by people who were coming from the continent,” Al Baker said at the Farnborough Air Show in the UK on July 19.

While he declined to directly attribute the operational constraints at London’s Heathrow and Gatwick airports to Brexit, the implication was that the UK’s leaving the EU in 2020 has contributed to the labor challenges many industries face in the country, and around the world. People who would otherwise work at truck drivers or tug operators at airports can find better paying jobs in other sectors that also do not require a several-month long security clearance process, said Al Baker.

Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary made a similar statement in May. He described the UK labor market as “very challenged” and “inflexible” as a result of Brexit, and warned that this could result in flight cancellations and delays this summer.

London Heathrow, the UK’s busiest airport and one of the largest European hubs, capped numbers at 100,000 passengers a day earlier in July. The restrictions, which airport CEO John Holland-Kaye said was to protect flights for the “vast majority of passengers” and give them “confidence” in a reliable journey, will continue into September. The move followed a cap on the number of flights at Gatwick airport in June that extends through August.

Holland-Kaye attributed the limits to understaffed ground handling operations at the airport.

“It’s having a huge financial impact on airlines,” Al Baker said of the Heathrow cap, as well as those at other airports around Europe. To be fair, it’s not just a Heathrow issue, Amsterdam and Frankfurt have also restricted capacity to ease operational issues this summer. Staffing issues have impacted airline operations in Australia, Canada, and the U.S. as well.

Qatar Airways reduced capacity at Heathrow by 30-40 percent following the introduction the cap, Al Baker said. It is achieving that by both capping the number of passengers on flights, as well as pulling down its schedule. He added that the short notice that airlines were given to reduce capacity — they were expected to meet the caps within days of the airport’s notice — into the airport was “very difficult.”

That short notice period could also trigger financial penalties for airlines. Under the EU 261 passenger protection guidelines, which were adopted by the UK following Brexit, airlines must reimburse as well as compensate travelers for flights cancelled at the last minute and for lengthy delays.

“If one of our flights doesn’t operate and we break the rules as they are, we’re upwards of paying €600 ($615) to every passenger,” Emirates President Tim Clark said of EU 261 on July 18. The impact on airlines can be “enormous,” he added.

Emirates publicly objected to Heathrow’s capacity restrictions, in a move that resulted in a deal on capacity limits a day later. The airline continues to operate its six daily Dubai-Heathrow flights but has suspended new bookings through mid-August, and is helping support Heathrow with ground staffing with its ground services subsidiary Dnata.

The current situation at Heathrow has Qatar Airways considering expanding its ground handling unit, Qatar Aviation Services, to the UK, Al Baker said. Such a move, however, would not provide relief to the immediate operational disruptions.

Al Baker declined to comment on when the current capacity restrictions and operational issues airlines face in Europe will end. However, he suggested that it could take as long as the hiring process for new staff takes, which can be up to six months in the UK.

Qatar Airways will fly roughly 87 percent of its global pre-pandemic capacity in July, Cirium schedules show.

Edward Russell
July 20th, 2022 at 6:52 AM EDT

Photo credit:  Flickr / Kevin Hackert

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