This has been a wretched week for the Spanish air industry. The problems at Vueling have been well chronicled, but they have also been overplayed by the media being fed a diet of political machismo. This is one version of events. Another has it that Vueling's problems are symptomatic of an industry that is run by power-mad executives, seeking to extract every last euro and caring little or nothing for customer service. Comparisons with the levels and types of service in the US and Asia have been made in pointing to an industry that obeys only one rule: profit.
The politicians have been having a field day, not least the national ministry for development, the one with responsibilities for air transport. Its threat to withdraw Vueling's operating licence was looked upon with shock by other airlines. The minister, Ana Pastor, generally considered to be a "serious" politician, has lately been caught up in the machismo tendency, presenting the government as some form of saviour of the air industry.
On Monday, Pastor called a meeting. The presence of all airlines operating in Spain was required, such as Air Europa, Air Nostrum, Binter Canarias, Iberia and of course Vueling. Most sent deputy executives rather than top bosses. They were to be read the riot act. About what exactly? Air Europa's pilots are planning on striking, this we knew, but apart from Vueling what grounds were there for hauling managers up before the ministry? The airlines believed it was all a political show, a demonstration of the ministry being on top of a situation that isn't necessarily the case.
The airline industry berates the government for different reasons, among them being the issuing of licensing demands that exceed accepted levels of safety and firing off threats of fines and other punishments. The past is littered with failure, such as the ghost airports like Ciudad Real. There is now also the potential disaster of Madrid airport having to close one runway because of noise. Such has been government aviation policy that Spain is left with only one home-grown player of any note, Air Europa. The rest have been swallowed up or operate as a franchisee, as is the case with Air Nostrum.
The government has failed to implant a satisfactory and swift mechanism for compensating passengers who are the victims of airline failures. Instead it calls airlines in, reads the riot act and lets the media know that it is doing so, thus demonstrating its credentials to the public while at the same time doing little or nothing about consumer protection. The ministry for development is not the only branch of government playing the media for what it's worth. The Balearic government has joined the showboating, insisting that it will be taking proceedings against Vueling and demanding compensation. Where will that lead? Either nowhere or to the courts. And that's because there isn't a satisfactory, consumer-oriented system. The one saving grace, institutionally, in all this may be the European Commission: Vueling should be made to abide by consumer rights.
The fact is that the problems at Vueling are not being overplayed. It can be argued, as it has been, that French industrial action has been a principal cause of delays and cancellations, but the controllers have not been walking out at weekends. Vueling has had to issue a statement that there won't be cancellations this weekend because there have been on previous weekends.
This is the third successive summer that Vueling has had issues, and they point, therefore, to management failure. The airline is stretched beyond its limit, now hoping that the drafting in of more aircraft will solve the problem, assuming there is personnel to fly them. It was this, an inability to satisfy demand, which lay behind Pastor's meeting. Might other airlines be unable to meet demand at the height of summer?
There is one airline, Norwegian, that has been sending out emails to staff asking them to "sell" days off. "We are having difficulties in covering sectors at the moment," the emails have read.
Against this background, one notes latest figures for passenger growth at Spanish airports. Vueling is one airline to have experienced more than ten per cent growth up to June - 15% up in fact and crossing the ten million passengers barrier for the first time. Norwegian was up by over 21%. There's demand, but can they meet it?