The Art of Improvisation: How Airlines Cope with Strikes

by Jan Uphues

There are two words that airline passengers hate most: "Delayed" and "Canceled". And they're not alone: airlines, airports and ground handlers also avoid both words the best they can, because if it happens, it might become expensive. Sometimes it's a technical issue - just think of the airport in Hannover which was completely closed down due to cracks in the runway during a massive heatwave in the summer of 2018. But a much more common reason for delays and cancellations are labor strikes, which happen all over the world.

In Germany, for instance, the general strike frequency is comparatively low, reaching only 12 days not worked annually per 1,000 employees (2009-2013), compared to France with an average of 171 days. The statistics for the U.S. show a similar picture, with generally decreasing strike participation numbers for decades. However, there are - next to France - other countries that are more often hit by strikes, such as Denmark, Canada and Spain. Some strike actions also hit the aviation business, whether it's the ground staff, air traffic controllers, pilots or cabin crews. Each of these groups has the power to disrupt the daily aviation workflows with a profound impact. One example is the strike of the French air traffic controllers in early summer 2018 which had a ripple effect all over Europe. As most commercial flights were not allowed to cross the French airspace during the strike, they had to take detours, resulting in long delays.

Through these delays, many flight crews exceeded their legally permitted maximum working time, but they had only arrived at their point of destination and the return flights still needed to be carried out. As a consequence, many crews had to spend the night in a hotel while an entire replacement crew and aircraft had to be activated at the according home base to bring the passengers back home - with an even greater delay. During the waiting time, the passengers needed to be provided with regular information and catering, which further increased the costs.

Passenger dissatisfaction with the overall situation also immediately reflects on the airline's image. The ultimate cost driver would be compensation payments travelers are entitled to in the event of a flight cancellation or massive delays of more than three hours, according to the EU Air Passenger Rights Regulation. Customers can even return their ticket and get their money back if the flight is canceled or more than five hours late. This does not, however, apply for strikes as they are classified as force majeure, according to the ruling of the Federal Court. Still, the airlines must do anything to mitigate the consequences of strikes. They need to provide evidence, that they served all the legal requirements.

Minimize impact through countermeasures

One thing is for sure: In many cases, the affected airlines, airports and ground handlers are not the authors of the strike. Yet they are forced to react to keep the expected damage as small as possible. There is a certain scope of actions they can take. Let's use the example of a pilot strike: As soon as it is announced, the airlines have to re-plan their resources and take what's left from their own staff in order to still cover as many flights as possible. This may result in pilots being called up in their vacation and asked if they are ready and willing to jump in. Furthermore, part-time resources may need to be more heavily relied upon.

Additionally, temporary employment agencies are asked if they can provide pilots for a short time and, time permitting, wet leases with other airlines are organized. The flights with the highest level of utilization are most likely to be operated. With still many flights left being delayed or canceled, lots of additional manpower is also required at the check-in counters: passengers need to be re-booked on other flights or into a hotel room as well as being provided with regular status updates.

Limitations for short-term support

The big challenge that is most likely to occur is that all contracts with external service providers are mostly long-term fixed and not easy to change. At the same time, due to the lean profit margins in the aviation business, resources are planned with as little over-capacities as possible. This means that in case of need, there may be very limited opportunities to get short-term support from any external service provider. This, in turn, might lead to improvised skeleton staff at the check-in, made up of office employees who normally have different tasks.

Another factor is the time for preparation. While strikes are mostly an escalation level of negotiations between employers and employee representatives, they are normally announced a few days before they start, so airlines and passengers have some time to react by exploring a few contingency plans in order to reduce the impact of the strike event. However, this is not the case if the strike is unauthorized and comes out of the blue - a rare but familiar scenario. Without preparation time, the absorbing measurements all need to take place on the operational level.

Identifying bottlenecks

So, what else can be done on the ground? When monitoring all flights and ground activities, it's essential to identify the potential bottlenecks, irregularities and critical paths. To improve their decision-making process in this regard, the turnaround managers and dispatchers need the support of IT-based data processing systems to allow for pro-active management. For instance, more resources - if available - can be assigned to a specific activity or process to speed it up. That could be a second cleaning team, a second fueling truck or additional staircases for faster de-boarding. Many airlines accept the increasing costs with a view to even higher opportunity costs that would arise if these steps were not taken. By avoiding these higher costs, the airlines enhance their service quality at the same time - a glimpse of light for stranded passengers during a strike.

Have you ever been affected by a flight cancellation due to a strike? What should have been done by the airlines in your opinion? Tell us what you think!

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About the author

  • Jan Uphues

    Jan Uphues started working as Marketing Manager in INFORM’s Aviation Division in 2018. He particularly enjoys the “Max Thrust!” moment on the runway.

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