Why air travel in Europe is such a mess right now

The queues at the airport are long and the lost luggage is piling up. It’s going to be a chaotic summer for travelers to Europe.

Share this article

Liz Morgan arrived at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport four and a half hours before her flight to Athens, finding the security line snaking out of the terminal and into a large tent along a road before returning inside the main building.

“There are old people in the queues, there are children, babies. No water, nothing. No signage, no help, no toilets,” said Morgan, who is from Australia and had tried to save time on Monday by checking in online and taking only hand luggage.

People “couldn’t get to the toilet because if you get out of the queue you lose your place,” she said.

After two years of pandemic restrictions, travel demand has soared, but airlines and airports that cut jobs at the height of the COVID-19 crisis are struggling to keep up. With the busy summer tourist season underway in Europe, passengers are facing chaotic scenes at airports including long delays, canceled flights and headaches from lost luggage.

Schiphol, the busiest airport in the Netherlands, is cutting flights, saying there are thousands of plane seats a day above the capacity security staff can handle. Dutch carrier KLM has apologized for stranding passengers there this month. It may be months before Schiphol has enough staff to ease the pressure, Ben Smith, CEO of the Air France-KLM airline alliance, said on Thursday.

London Gatwick and Heathrow airports are asking airlines to limit their flight numbers. Discount carrier easyJet is cutting thousands of summer flights to avoid last-minute cancellations and in response to caps at Gatwick and Schiphol. North American airlines have written to Ireland’s transport chief demanding urgent action to deal with ‘significant delays’ at Dublin Airport.

Security at London Heathrow Airport on June 22.

Nearly 2,000 flights from mainland European airports were canceled for a week this month, with Schiphol accounting for almost 9%, according to data from aviation consultancy Cirium. A further 376 flights were canceled from UK airports, with Heathrow accounting for 28%, Cirium said.

It’s a similar story in the United States, where airlines canceled thousands of flights over two days last week due to bad weather as summer tourist crowds swell.

Despite the chaos, travelers are not thwarted

“In the vast majority of cases, people travel,” said Julia Lo Bue-Said, CEO of Advantage Travel Group, which represents around 350 UK travel agents. But airports are understaffed and processing security clearances for newly hired workers takes much longer, she said.

“They all create bottlenecks in the system,” and that also means “when things go wrong, they go drastically wrong,” she said.

The Biden administration scrapping COVID-19 testing for people entering the United States is giving a further boost to pent-up demand for transatlantic travel. Bue-Said said agents in his group reported an increase in bookings in the United States after the rule was dropped this month.

For American travelers in Europe, the strengthening of the dollar against the euro and the pound is also a factor, making hotels and restaurants more affordable.

Baggage claim is a “madhouse”

At Heathrow, a sea of ​​unclaimed luggage covered the floor of a terminal building last week. The airport blamed technical problems with the baggage system and asked airlines to cut 10% of flights at two terminals on Monday, affecting around 5,000 passengers.

“A number of passengers” may have traveled without their luggage, the airport said.

When cookbook writer Marlena Spieler returned from Stockholm to London this month, it took her three hours to clear passport control. Spieler, 73, spent at least an hour and a half trying to find his luggage in the baggage area, which “was a madhouse, with piles of suitcases everywhere”.

She almost gave up, before spotting her bag on a carousel. She has another trip planned to Greece in a few weeks but fears going to the airport again.

In Sweden, queues for security at Stockholm Arlanda Airport have been so long this summer that many passengers have arrived more than five hours before boarding time. So many show up early that authorities are turning away travelers arriving more than three hours before their flight to ease congestion.

Despite some improvements, the line leading to one of the checkpoints stretched more than 100 meters on Monday.

Four young German women, nervous about missing their flight to Hamburg while waiting to check their luggage, asked other passengers if they could jump to the front of the line. Once there, they purchased fast-track passes to skip the long security line.

Lina Wiele, 19, said she hadn’t seen quite the same level of chaos at other airports, “not like this I guess”, before rushing to the fast lane.

The departure board at Brussels International Airport during a strike

Underlying Reasons for Airline Worker Shortages

Thousands of pilots, cabin crew, baggage handlers and other aviation industry workers have been laid off during the pandemic, and now there isn’t enough left to cope with the rebound in travel.

“Some airlines are struggling because I think they were hoping to get their workforce back faster than they were able to,” said Willie Walsh, director of the International Air Transport Association.

The post-pandemic staffing shortage is not unique to the airline industry, Walsh said at the airline trade group’s annual meeting this week in Qatar.

“What makes it difficult for us is that many jobs cannot be managed remotely, so airlines have not been able to offer the same flexibility to their workforce. than other companies,” he said. “Pilots need to be present to operate the aircraft, cabin crew need to be present, we need to have people loading bags and assisting passengers.”

The laid off aviation workers “have found new jobs with higher wages, with more stable contracts”, said Joost van Doesburg of the FNV union, which represents most workers at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. “And now everyone wants to travel again,” but workers don’t want airport jobs.

Michael O’Leary, CEO of low-cost airline Ryanair, Europe’s largest carrier, warned flight delays and cancellations would continue “throughout the summer”. Passengers should expect a “less than satisfying experience”, O’Leary told Sky News.

Some European airports have not yet encountered major problems but are preparing. Prague’s Vaclav Havel International Airport expects passenger numbers to increase next week and in July, “when we might experience a shortage of staff, especially at security checks,” the gate said. lyrics by Klara Diviskova.

The airport is still short of “dozens of employees” despite a recruitment drive, she said.

Labor disputes also cause problems. In Belgium, Brussels Airlines said a three-day strike from Thursday will lead to the cancellation of around 315 flights and affect some 40,000 passengers.

Check-in staff and ground staff at British Airways at Heathrow voted in favor of a pay strike on Thursday. Dates have not been set, but their unions have said it will be this summer.

Two days of strikes have hit Paris Charles de Gaulle airport this month, one by security staff and the other by airport staff who say wages are not keeping pace with the inflation. A quarter of the flights were canceled on the second day.

Some Air France pilots are threatening to strike on Saturday, warning that crew fatigue threatens flight safety, although Smith, the airline’s CEO, said it should not disrupt operations. Airport staff are promising another pay-related strike on July 1.

And yet travelers keep pouring in - long queues to check in at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport

Still, airport problems are unlikely to deter people from flying, said Jan Bezdek, spokesman for Czech travel agency CK Fischer, which has sold more holiday packages so far this year than before the pandemic.

“What we can see is that people can’t stand to wait to travel after the pandemic,” Bezdek said. “Any problems at airports can hardly change that.”

>> Next: European flight canceled or delayed? This European legislation guarantees compensation

Mary I. Bruner