Will travel return to normal this summer?

By Katy Austin
Transport correspondent

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Young couple are boarding their plane at the airport to go on holidayImage source, Getty Images

Airlines and tour operators are racing to boost staff numbers in the hope receding travel rules will trigger a summer holiday boom.

The UK will remove all travel testing requirements for fully-vaccinated people next Friday.

However, travel agents say destinations' Covid rules are still putting some Brits off, and many continue to book last minute.

There are also warnings of recruitment struggles as the industry ramps up.

On Monday, Ryanair's Michael O'Leary was the latest travel boss to predict a strong bounce-back, as people return to going on holiday.

Image source, Reuters

He said that for summer 2022, airline expected to put on 115% of the capacity it had done in 2019.

Ryanair is recruiting and training 1,000 new pilots and 2,000 cabin crew.

However, he warned that much depended on Covid developments and said: "I think being cautious is the sensible way forward."

Some other travel businesses have also said they expect to put on a summer offering at least as big as before Covid.

The airline and a tour operator Jet2 told the BBC earlier this month it was planning a larger summer holiday package this year than in 2019.

It is selling more seats on an expanded fleet of planes in the expectation of high demand, and recruiting for more than 1,700 roles. These include roles in ground operations in the UK and overseas, cabin crew, and office staff.

The chief executive of EasyJet, Johan Lundgren, said pent-up demand should push summer capacity near to 2019 levels.

EasyJet is recruiting 1,500 seasonal cabin crew, and plans to recruit 1,000 pilots over the next five years.

British Airways, which has cut about a quarter of its staff - 10,000 roles - since the pandemic began, has recently been looking to hire thousands of cabin crew with a view to ramping up services. This includes inviting back some staff who previously left but expressed an interest in returning.

The carrier is looking for hundreds more for its new Gatwick short-haul subsidiary, which is due to launch at the end of March.

The UK's biggest tour operator, TUI, is also recruiting cabin crew for what it expects to be a busy summer.

Last-minute bookings

Julia Lo Bue-Said, chief executive of independent travel agent network Advantage Travel Partnership, said consumer confidence still needed to improve for a bumper summer to materialise.

She said many people were nervous about booking trips far in advance in case rules changed again, and complicated Covid regulations for entering popular destinations such as Spain were still putting families off.

"A third of everything being sold [by our members] is currently classed as late departures, so travelling before the end of March. That's unusual," she continued.

Image source, Getty Images

"40% of what you'd normally be selling now would be in school holidays - at the moment it's more like 15%."

She also believes a significant proportion of those travelling this summer will have postponed from last year - or even 2020.

However, Dame Irene Hays, chair of Hays Travel, said a lot of customers were booking last minute, but the summer season was "by far the number one".

Since the second week of January, Dame Irene said Hays Travel had seen increases week on week, the biggest of which came after last Monday's announcement that the UK would scrap travel tests for the fully-vaccinated.

Dame Irene said this was the same as the equivalent weekend in 2020, which she described as remarkable.

"The majority of short-haul holiday bookings are for Spain, Turkey and Greece, but there's also been a phenomenal increase in long-haul holidays for a longer duration," she added.

"People are now ready for the holidays many are taking the opportunity to spend more on a holiday that's been worth waiting for."

Recruitment struggles

ABTA, a trade association for travel agents and tour operators, said its members had reported an increase in activity following the relaxation of the UK's travel restrictions.

However, the group feels it's still too early to say for certain what the summer will look like.

ABTA spokesperson Emma Brennan said that, like many other sectors, the travel industry was experiencing challenges with recruitment.

"The pandemic led to hundreds of thousands of jobs being lost, with many people making a move to other sectors. As a sector we now need to face the challenge of enticing them back and attracting new talent."

Image source, Getty Images

Aviation is among the industries to have suffered most during the pandemic, shedding thousands of jobs. The recruitment site Indeed.com said vacancies in the industry only returned to pre-pandemic levels in December 2021, before nose-diving again, as a result of Omicron. It said there were now signs of a rebound.

James Reed, the chairman of recruiter Reed.co.uk, said the scramble to hire more workers to cope with the British public's pent-up demand for travel had created a jobs boom. However, like other industries, he said the aviation sector faced labour shortages.

"The current labour market is a sellers' market, not a buyers' market, meaning jobseekers hold all the cards and it is down to the employers to make themselves as attractive as possible to new talent."

Ryanair's Michael O'Leary said he did not generally see staffing issues affecting the ramping up of operations, although "there are pockets".

Other modes of travel have also expressed optimism about the coming months. Saga said last week cruise bookings were strong for 2022 and 2023.