Airlines have been told to review their summer schedules to ensure they are “deliverable”.
The Department for Transport and the Civil Aviation Authority have said early cancellations are “better” than cutting flights on the day of departure.
They sent a joint letter to the aviation industry calling on companies to take “all possible measures” to “avoid the unacceptable scenes we have recently witnessed”.
Tens of thousands of passengers have been affected by flight cancellations and long queues at airports in recent months, particularly over Easter and during the school holidays last month.
The disruption has been blamed on aviation companies struggling to recruit enough staff to meet surging travel demand, after thousands of jobs were cut in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Rannia Leontaridi, director general of aviation at the Department for Transport and CAA boss Richard Moriarty set out five “specific expectations” for the sector in their letter.
They wrote: ‘We believe it is important for each airline to review their plans again for the remainder of the summer season until the end of September in order to develop a deliverable schedule.
“Your schedules should be based on the resources you and your contractors expect to have available, and should be resilient to the unforeseen and unavoidable operational challenges you will face.
“While cancellations at any time are an unfortunate inconvenience for passengers, we believe that canceling as early as possible to provide a more robust schedule is better for consumers than late same-day cancellations.”
The letter said airlines must have “the processes and resources in place to keep consumers informed” of their rights during disruptions, such as having “adequately staffed call centers and user-friendly digital channels”.
He also proposed that airport chief executives create working groups to bring together airlines, ground service providers, air traffic control and border forces to “ensure a more coordinated strategic approach”.
The letter comes as Oliver Richardson, national civil aviation manager at the Unite union, told MPs that a ranking of airlines based on their number of cancellations ‘almost exactly matches’ the number of jobs that they removed during the pandemic.
Giving evidence to the Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, he said Ryanair, which made no mandatory redundancies, was in a “different position to British Airways”, which been forced to cancel more than 100 daily flights in recent weeks due to staff shortages after severe job cuts were implemented in 2020.
“They got rid of too many people in a number of cases,” Mr Richardson said.
But British Airways general affairs director Lisa Tremble refused to acknowledge that the job cuts were contributing to the cancellations.
Labor MP Darren Jones, who chairs the committee, repeatedly pressed her on the issue.
He asked: “Do you think there was a link between firing 10,000 of your staff using aggressive firing and rehiring tactics, and now canceling the most flights per day? “
Ms. Tremble said “it’s very complicated”, specifying that the company “had to protect as many jobs as possible”.
Mr Jones replied: ‘We asked you a very direct question, I think three times, and you chose not to answer it.’
EasyJet’s chief operating officer, Sophie Deckers, insisted the Luton-based airline – which is also experiencing a large number of cancellations – had anticipated the rise in travel demand, but the delays in new cabin crew recruits receiving security passes “took us by surprise”.
She said the process usually takes about 14 weeks, compared to 10 weeks before the pandemic.
The delay is due to the difficulties many people have in obtaining references for all the jobs they have had in the past five years, with the pandemic often creating complicated work histories.
“In many cases people have had 10 jobs in the past two years,” Ms Deckers said.
“Maybe some of them only lasted a few weeks, but we have to get a referral from all of them, so that’s what takes time.
“We now have 142 crew members ready and trained to go online who don’t have their IDs.”
Sue Davies, head of consumer rights at consumer group Which?, said the aviation industry and government “must take responsibility for the chaos we have seen”.
She acknowledged that the sector had been “particularly affected” by the virus crisis, but pointed out that consumers had “lost money and suffered enormous emotional stress”.
Ms Davies accused the airlines of selling tickets when “they don’t know for sure that these flights are actually going to be able to go”.
She added: “There is just a blatant disregard for consumer rights and a failure to put the interests of passengers first.”
Aviation Minister Robert Courts said it had been an ‘exceptionally difficult time’ for aviation companies but it was ‘the industry’s responsibility’ to ensure it employed enough staff .