Wednesday, July 06, 2016

The Rotten State Of Spanish Airlines: Vueling

There is something fanciful, comical even, with the suggestion that has been advanced for the Balearic government to somehow conjure up an airline for Mallorca. This is not because the idea is wrong per se, but because of the inability of Mallorca-based and Spanish airlines to operate efficiently and effectively.

Spanair is of course an airline of the past. It collapsed at the start of 2012, having limped along for several years. It was a bankruptcy disaster waiting to happen, enormous losses having been incurred in previous years. A public-private consortium, which had acquired it from Scandinavian Airlines for one euro, finally threw in the towel, a reliance on public money post-acquisition having been the thing that really killed it. The timing was awful - what with crisis and a then rise in the cost of fuel - while Ryanair was not alone in having challenged the legality of its funding.

Vueling is a different matter. It isn't about to go bust. As part of the IAG group (together, therefore, with British Airways, Iberia and Aer Lingus), its recent performance in terms of passenger carrying has been highly impressive: growth of 18% in the first half of this year, three times as much as Iberia. But this growth is part of the problem, because Vueling has found itself in the midst of one almighty mess.

The French air traffic controllers' actions haven't helped, but they are not the reason for delays and cancellations of a level that has taken on scandalous proportions. Whilst other airlines are functioning - French industrial action notwithstanding - without impacts on their schedules, Vueling is chaotic. Based in Barcelona, the Catalonian government is taking it to task, as is the national aviation authority (Aesa) and even the equivalent authority in Italy.

The airline's CEO, David García Blanca, issued an apology to passengers affected by delays and cancellations last weekend. Nevertheless, Vueling cancelled fourteen flights out of its some 700 last Sunday. The reasons for these service problems are not wholly clear. There has been speculation that there is some form of covert strike going on - workers' representatives have denied this. The most likely explanation is that an ambitious scheduling programme simply cannot be complied with because of inadequate staffing levels.

The national government is threatening Vueling with punishment (presumably hitting it hard in the pocket or worse, i.e. having its licence to operate withdrawn), while Catalonia is demanding a "change of attitude" in addressing "serious deficiencies". That's a quite telling remark: it's as if the airline doesn't really care about its clients. García has admitted that there needs to be greater staffing for customer service (among other things).

If it is a case that recruitment has been lacking, then how does such a situation arise? Any business, let alone an airline, has to staff accordingly in order to comply with service levels that are being planned. The whole thing smacks of either incompetence or of a wilful neglect of passengers by arranging schedules and then not having the personnel to implement them.

The particularly unfortunate part of all this is that Vueling was showing itself to be a decent enough airline. Its reputation isn't now totally in tatters but it is fast going down the pan. Remedial action is desperately required, or it will become another byword for Spanish airline inefficiency. Spanair, even before it got into trouble, was known as "Spanner" because of its lousy record.

And then there is the Mallorca-based Air Europa, the only Spanish-owned airline anywhere near capable of being a market leader but one which fails to make genuine inroads into the dominance of IAG, Ryanair and others. Its pilots are voting on strike action, the background to this being the creation of a low-cost division - Air Europa Express - to compete with the likes of Vueling. More possible misery lies ahead for the travelling public.

A curious aspect of the Spanish airline industry's inability to function well is that it is in great contrast to the world-leading nature of other parts of the travel sector, notably the country's hotel chains, led mainly by the Mallorcan hoteliers. For a country so dependent on travel and tourism, this failing is truly odd.

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