With offices vacant again due to a crippling week-long rail strike, and airports under pressure, travel is suffering a setback, particularly business travel. In public relations terms, the UK should be in crisis management mode.
Overstretched airports and nationwide rail strikes this week are slamming the brakes on the UK’s economic recovery and causing a blow to the country’s reputation, experts have warned.
Passengers are already becoming jaded, wary of flying due to airline delays and cancelations across the globe, but the recent wave of travel disruption across the UK looks set to deter business travelers.
Widely circulated pictures of a mountain of unclaimed luggage on social media probably wasn’t the image Heathrow Airport wanted the world to see this week, but it’s the latest in a series of incidents that also included the death of a passenger while disembarking at Gatwick Airport.
Heathrow this week asked airlines to cap flights to catch up with delays caused by a technical glitch with its baggage system. It compounds problems for the UK’s largest airport, following a stalled recovery in March due to concerns from U.S. travelers over war in Europe and rising air fares. Gatwick also asked airlines to cut back this summer due to continuing labour shortages, which one airline boss has put down to Brexit.
Now a week-long rail and underground tube strike, coordinated by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, is further hindering the nation’s recovery. It said its dispute stems from the government’s decision to cut more than $4 billion in funding.
Many companies are returning to work-from-home-home policies last seen during the height of the pandemic.
“Further travel disruption will continue to have an impact on the return to business travel,” warned Catherine Logan, regional vice president, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, at the Global Business Travel Association. “We have learnt from the last two years that a return to office has a direct correlation on a return to business travel. If employees are unable to travel to offices to attend meetings, this will impact business, business travel and the economy.”
UKHospitality, which represents 740 companies operating 100,000 venues in England, Scotland, and Wales, said the rail strikes will cost the sector more than $660 million in lost revenue, while one consultant told Skift that Europeans they met over the past few weeks had said they were reluctant to attend upcoming travel industry-related conferences and events in the UK due to these ongoing issues.
“Uncertainty around assurance of supply, disruption and reliability certainly undermines traveler confidence and therefore the guidance senior leaders may give regarding business travel,” said Scott Davies, CEO at the Institute of Travel Management. “However, the problems that we are seeing have multiple causes and businesses should look to support their people and culture, their customers and their suppliers by doing all possible to keep on the move.”
The rail strikes in particular pose a threat if they continue into the summer, argued one trade body boss.
“They are completely against everything the travel industry stands for,” said Clive Wratten, CEO of the UK’s Business Travel Association. “People are being left not able to get to work, stranded in unfamiliar places unable to get home and deprived of hard-won income.” He added that the government and the unions needed “to get around the table so that we can have the summer we deserve as we recover from the ravages of the pandemic.”
The debate around labor, including shortages, salaries, job prospects and industry efficiency, will likely continue over the course of the year, with another expert describing the UK as being in a “chicken and egg situation.”
“The industry needs to invest in its people and pay them accordingly, but to do this they need to sell travel to a market that is jaded and tired of the problems they are experiencing around cancellations and delays,” said Bex Deadman, owner of 8 Phase consultancy.
“A different approach to the remuneration of travel services is required. Because right now those at the front end are selling a product, in this case ‘travel’, which can’t be fulfilled at the back-end for a variety of reasons that then affects the whole chain. We are an industry that relies on trust which is quickly being eroded.”
The brand perception of the UK is also at risk.
“The failure of UK airlines to cope with the numbers of travelers this summer is doing real damage to the UK’s reputation on the international stage,” said Andrew Stephenson, director of marketing, Europe, the Middle East and Africa at customer data firm Treasure Data, who argued the nation’s airline industry faces a steep climb to recover its standing over the coming months
“It’s largely down to inadequate planning, and the problems are exacerbated by poor data management by the airlines, leading to sub-standard customer experience” he added. “Airlines need to better identify and develop personalized communications to customers to warn them of any potential disruption, and offer personalized offers and benefits as compensation.”
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Photo credit: Technical issues at Heathrow Airport affected baggage systems over the weekend. Kate Irwin