Airline, Airport Staffing Problems Offer Lessons

The industry was caught flat-footed when demand roared back this year after redundancies during the pandemic.

Credit: Ocean Driven Media
IST's Kadri Samsunlu (centre-left) and Hawaiian's Peter Ingram (center-right) speaking on a panel at Routes World 2022 in Las Vegas.

A major challenge for airlines and airports during the pandemic has been retaining employees and recruiting and training new staff.

Speaking at the Routes World 2022 conference Sunday, Istanbul Airport (IST) Director Kadri Samsunlu said many airlines “lost credibility in the eyes of employees” because of staff cuts implemented quickly after the pandemic hit in 2020. Employees were facing “absolute uncertainty” and “worried about their families” and airlines did too little to reassure them, he explained.

“The good times came back and [airlines] asked staff to come back, and they didn’t in many cases,” he said. “You can’t expect loyalty from them” after letting so many people go.

And rehired staff take time to come back online.

“It is not like plug and play,” Samsunlu said, noting two to three months is generally required to train a new or returning airline employee.

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As a result, staffing problems left airlines flat footed when demand roared back this year. “Most airlines under-planned for the pace of the recovery,” Hawaiian Airlines CEO Peter Ingram said. “The most important lesson to me is it’s incredibly important to remember that the airline industry … is ultimately about the people who work for our company.” 

Employees “didn’t know if the company was going to survive,” Ingram added. Hawaiian faced additional uncertainty because the state of Hawaii implemented strict COVID-19 entry rules that also applied to US residents. 

Going forward, “workers increasingly value flexibility,” Ingram added, noting Hawaiian’s office staff got accustomed to working from home and accommodation needs to be made to keep those workers satisfied. 

“There’s much more [airlines] have to do to rethink our relationship with employees,” Ingram said.