Fasten your seatbelt: we’re flying into months of travel chaos in the UK. But who will protect the passengers? | Callum Tennant

FLying is certainly not as glamorous as it once was, but that does not mean it has been as painful as it is right now. Airlines charge customers for small amenities – such as sitting next to the person you booked the flight with – and that’s if your plane even gets off the ground. Many customers have been left behind after canceled flights, and are asking for the compensation they are legally entitled to. This is not a situation that any sector, or regulator, should be happy with.

Aviation is a cruel business with extremely tight profit margins. The sector is littered with corpses, such as Monarch and Thomas Cook, which show what happens to companies with an unsustainable model. But the current crisis is a result of the airlines being too focused on profit and not paying enough attention to the well-being of customers and employees.

You may remember once the airline’s employees brought round meals on your flight to Spain, but these extras were the first on the cutting board when market liberalization in Europe led to the emergence of budget companies that would set the pace for a race to the bottom between providers.

Budget airlines tried to get business travelers from older airlines, and in return, older airlines embraced a low-cost approach in their economy class. Foreign holidays became more accessible, but travelers began to feel like figures on a balance sheet instead of valued customers.

Staff began fighting for cost cuts and wages, with British Airways employees on strike in 2009 and again in 2017. While management told staff about the importance of cost-effectiveness, the message was undermined by wage increases at the top. In 2019, the then CEO of BA, Alex Cruz, caused outrage when he accepted a salary increase of “530,000 pounds”, while pilots did not receive salary increases to the extent they had requested.

Then Covid-19 struck. Airlines, airports and third parties involved in aviation laid off hundreds of thousands of workers. Many workers whose careers spanned decades were made redundant without thinking about it. Airlines have been accused of operating “fire and re-hire” schemes, abusing the spirit of the leave scheme and of cutting too deep. In 2020, the British Parliament’s Transport Committee accused some airlines of making a “calculated attempt to exploit the pandemic to cut jobs”. Through the pandemic, many airlines also failed to give full cash refunds to consumers when they were required to do so by law.

When we get out of the pandemic, it often seems like things are getting worse instead of better. Wizz Air CEO József Váradi said employees should go the “extra mile” when they are tired so the airline could avoid canceling flights. The comment was met with outrage by pilot unions, who said the comments demonstrated a “deficient safety culture”. Wizz Air denied that Váradi was specifically targeting pilots, insisting he spoke to all employees, saying that “safety has, and always will be, our first priority”.

As thousands of flights are canceled in the coming months, there are fears that consumers may again be misled by airlines trying to limit payments. The UK’s own air traffic control authority, which is responsible for protecting travelers, has admitted that its airline enforcement authorities are inadequate.

In late April, the British Parliament’s Transport Committee said the UK Civil Aviation Authority would soon demand the power to impose financial sanctions on airlines that did not give full refunds to consumers when required to do so by law. The Storting committee also called on the government to introduce a mechanism to ensure that air passengers, when they are entitled to reimbursement by law, receive automatic compensation.

But it’s not just bad news. As a sign that shareholders may also have had enough, BA’s parent company, IAG, is facing a possible shareholder revolt over a decision to increase CEO Luis Gallego Martín’s share allocations, despite huge losses during the pandemic. From earlier this year, BA passengers once again received free food and drink on short-haul flights after the airline’s boss admitted scrapping benefits had been a mistake.

However, restoring faith in British aviation will require more than just a sandwich. Job security for staff and new authorizations for the industry regulator will also be on the menu.