Commercial air travel is blighted by ongoing disruption stemming from COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson has taken to the skies to attend several summits, though his agenda raises questions about his priorities.
With border restrictions easing around the world, international traveling is picking up. Having spent more than enough time in recent weeks navigating through some of Europe’s busiest airports, I have rediscovered my doubts about that old saying, the journey, rather than the destination, is the reward. That, in my experience, is no longer true – most obviously in air travel, but also on road and rail, where poor maintenance and lack of workers have led to delays and cancellations. Some of the best planned and most highly rated airports have suffered the most. At Amsterdam Schipol, passengers were told to arrive five hours before departure time to check in for international flights, including even a one-hour KLM City Hopper flight to Paris or Berlin.
KLM and many other airlines had laid off check-in staff and baggage handlers during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and have been unable to attract them back in sufficient numbers. The result is queues to check-in stretching well outside the departure terminal and long waits to get through security and at the departure gates. Many families, looking forward to a holiday had their flights cancelled, leaving them with neither the prospect of travelling hopefully nor arriving anywhere, except home.
In Britain, the one of the worst airports has been London Gatwick, mainly because of the high volume of flight cancellations by its leading operator, EasyJet. The airline’s management is now cutting back its July-August schedule across the network as it faces a wave of strikes. In the five European countries in which it operates, Ryan Air is also facing strike action, and check-in staff at British Airways are about to start a prolonged strike because the airline refused to restore pay to pre-COVID-19 levels. Travellers have been warned to prepare for “a summer of massive disruption.”
While poor management must take most of the blame for this travel fiasco, the war in Ukraine is a contributory factor. Most long-haul flights between northern Europe and Asia-Pacific destinations would normally fly across Russia, but since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, they avoid Russian air space, taking a southerly route across the the Caucasus, adding an hour to flight times. This has greatly increased demand for flight paths above already congested Germany, forcing air traffic controllers to limit take offs and landings of short-haul aircraft, resulting in delays and cancellations.
One person who has had the good fortune to avoid this downside of air travel is the beleaguered UK prime minister, Boris Johnson. Having survived an attempt by many Tory MPs to remove him for lies and broken promises, he has opted for escapology – weeks away from the Westminster “bubble” and probing questions from journalists and disgruntled members of his party, including at least four former leaders.
Johnson’s overseas forays in the Royal Air Force Voyager jet – an executive adaptation of an Airbus A330 – began when he saw that the leaders of Germany, France, and Italy were in Ukraine to show their support for President Volodymyr Zelensky, telling him they wanted Ukraine to join the European Union. On Saturday 14 June, Johnson was scheduled to make the keynote speech at a conference of northern region Conservatives, the very people who had been responsible for his stunning election victory two years earlier. But the day before, he flew to Warsaw then caught a night train to Kyiv to spend the day with Zelensky. In classic “Boris style,” he sought to trump the offer of the other three European leaders.
The rhetoric was pure Churchillian: Putin would pay for his barbarity. Unlike some European countries, Britain was not asking Ukraine to negotiate a peace deal, making concessions to the Russians. Britain would supply more money, more sophisticated weapons, and send military trainers to help Ukrainian forces. There was a lack of specificity as to how and when this would happen, but Johnson returned to London happy with his day’s work. Up in South Yorkshire, however, northern Tory MPs and party officials were still awaiting the prime minister’s arrival until his secret trip to Ukraine was reported on BBC radio. To say they were displeased is an understatement.
Johnson’s next flight was a two-day trip to Kigali for a summit of Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) leaders opened by the Prince of Wales, who had incurred Johnson’s anger by describing his plan to send would-be asylum seekers to Rwanda for assessment and possible settlement as “horrible.” It seems that most of the CHOGM leaders appeared to agree with the heir to the British throne. Although Johnson saw where refugees would be assessed, there were none present as the UK government has yet to overcome the legal arguments preventing refugee flights from taking off.
From Rwanda, Johnson flew to Munich for a meeting of G7, notable for the fact that the customary one-to-one meeting between the United States president and the British prime minister usually held on the sidelines of G7 did not take place. No explanation was given, nor for Johnson’s last-minute withdrawal from a panel discussion in which he and Joe Biden were due to speak. The event coincided with the UK House of Commons giving a first reading to a bill which will abolish the Northern Ireland Protocol, an important element of the Brexit agreement between Britain and the European Union in 2020. Biden previously voiced his displeasure at the move, which he sees as threatening the Good Friday Agreement that ended the Troubles in Ulster.
Johnson’s final call was to Madrid, Spain, on 28 June for the historic NATO summit designed to shore up the alliance’s resolve to protect the West from immediate threats from Russia and longer-term challenges from China. The summit was attended by Anthony Albanese, only the second Australian prime minister to participate in such a summit.
It is only six months since many were writing NATO off, but in the last few days, thanks mainly to Biden’s leadership, the group has significantly reinforced and strengthened its power. Such a result was definitely not in Putin’s mind when he sought to obliterate Ukraine as a nation-state in February.
In an unexpected announcement, Biden said on 28 June that the United States will increase its military deployment in Europe as part of a scaling up of NATO defences in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the most significant announcement of his presidency, he said that the additional deployments would send an unmistakeable message that NATO is strong and united. The US will establish a permanent headquarters for the 5th Army Corps in Poland as well as sending 5000 additional troops to Romania, two squadrons of F-35 fighter aircraft to the UK, additional defence equipment to Italy and Germany, and two additional naval destroyers to Spain.
The summit also overcame objections by Turkey to Finland and Sweden joining NATO, while Britain’s new army chief of staff, General Sir Patrick Sanders, spoke for everybody when he said that NATO was facing a 1937 moment and had to be prepared to fight to push back against Russian aggression. He expects “All ranks to get ready, train hard and engage.”
Colin Chapman is editor-at-large of Australian Outlook and a fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. Colin is a writer, broadcaster, and public speaker who specialises in geopolitics, international economics, and global media issues. He was president of AIIA New South Wales.
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