Vueling execs called in to explain flight chaos at Barcelona airport

Catalan authorities mulling sanctions against low-cost carrier after four days of cancellations and delays

Passengers lining up at Vueling counters at Barcelona airport.
Passengers lining up at Vueling counters at Barcelona airport.Massimiliano Minocri (EL PAÍS)

The Spanish Public Works Ministry has initiated proceedings against low-cost carrier Vueling after four straight days of flight cancellations and delays.

The ministry’s Air Safety Agency has told company president Javier Sánchez-Prieto to come in on Monday to explain the reasons for the cancellation of 14 flights, 10 of which departed from or arrived at Barcelona-El Prat airport.

Emergency hirings

On Monday, sales director David García said that the company had added 130 new employees to improve its customer service following the string of delays. In a radio interview on Rac1, García said that Vueling has also rented six more aircraft, hired 34 pilots and increased its sales personnel by 40%.

“It’s our responsibility,” he said.

The regional government of Catalonia has also called in Vueling executives and is contemplating sanctions against the Spanish airline, which is owned by IAG – itself the merger of Iberia and British Airways.

The trouble began on Thursday and continued through Sunday, triggering scenes of chaos at Barcelona-El Prat and leaving at least 8,250 people stranded.

Although Vueling has been trying to be discreet about its recent cancellations and failed to provide an official count, at least 46 flights have been suspended since last Thursday. Others have suffered delays and unexpected stopovers. The company declined to take calls from this newspaper.

At midday on Sunday, its website indicated five cancellations of Barcelona-based flights to Málaga, Moscow, Bilbao, Toulouse and Paris, with five more inbound flights from Frankfurt, Dubrovnik, Ibiza, Málaga and Paris also suspended. By 10pm, the Bilbao-Barcelona and Toulose-Barcelona flights had also been cancelled.

The company has blamed the delays on “operational problems.” But employees said that planning for the summer campaign has been “disastrous.”

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Other company sources added that a series of factors has contributed to a perfect storm that could get even bigger throughout the summer.

One high-placed company employee listed a few of these factors for EL PAÍS, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“During Easter we could already foresee that this was going to happen,” he said. “We lost control over operations, personnel and flight crews. Later, we saw that more flights were being sold than we could possibly operate.”

According to this worker, the shortage of personnel includes copilots.

“On some flights, there were two captains because there were not enough trained copilots,” said this source.

To this, he said, must be added the complexity of opening new hubs like the one in Paris.

He also pointed at the change in corporate leadership as another key factor explaining the trouble at Vueling. But ultimately, the chief problem is “out-of-control” growth.

During Easter we could already foresee that this was going to happen

Vueling employee

“It did not match a growth in the number of personnel handling the crews and passengers,” said this company source.

It also did not help that French air traffic controllers went on strike repeatedly in recent times.

“Our routes fly over that airspace in 80% of cases, and it’s affected us,” he said.

The situation has reached a point where, despite good financial results – Vueling earned €93.39 million in 2015, three times as much as expected – employees have started to fear for their jobs.

English version by Susana Urra.

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