The situation with air travel in Europe is so bad already that some airlines are advising passengers not to fly this summer. It’s the season of ‘Airmageddon’ — the name given to the chaotic reality of summer travel, with airlines and airports bracing for potential meltdowns and travelers suffering stressful experiences.
Heathrow Airport, among others, has told airlines to stop selling summer tickets, the BBC reports, “as the UK’s biggest airport struggles to cope with the rebound in air travel.” The cap on passenger numbers will be in place from now until 11 September.
A seemingly endless check-in line last week at the Eindhoven airport in the Netherlands, spilled outside the airport, through the vast esplanade at the terminal’s entry, past the parking lots, winding down surrounding streets. At least it was a sunny day, but rain will come sooner or later. What?
Long queues are a common sight at airports throughout Europe and unpleasant stories are legion – last-minute cancellations even after aspiring-passengers had already passed through security, lost luggage, delays for five, six and even seven hours, hours-long queues at security and customs checkpoints — and nobody to turn to for help at airline counters.
“Across Europe and the US, the joyful return of summer travel has turned into a season of chaos,” the New York Times reports in an article entitled “Why Air Travel Is Hell This Summer,” adding that “it won’t be fixed anytime soon.”
‘Airmageddon’ and the war
And that’s not the worst. The summer has just started and predictions by experts are extremely discouraging.
“The recent developments across the 27-nation bloc have left thousands of passengers waiting, with those who were lucky to have their flights canceled while the rest being left to wait for hours to board their flight,” writes Schengenvisainfo.
Europe has become the “Epicenter For This Summer’s Travel Chaos,” according to Bloomberg, adding that “recent weeks have been dominated by images of lines of people snaking outside terminal buildings in Amsterdam, groups camped out in departure halls in Frankfurt and piles of misplaced luggage in London.”
The European airmageddon is the result of what the New York Times calls “the perfect storm” that, among other contributing factors, includes the lifting of coronavirus travel restrictions across Europe that triggered a surge in demand as airlines, airports and other travel-related companies struggle to staff their operations after laying off thousands of workers during the height of the pandemic as the industry practically ground to a halt over the last two years.
Then there is Europe’s war in Ukraine, which is severely restricting available airspace across the continent. According to Lufthansa, the war is leading to massive bottlenecks in the skies and thus to further flight delays.
Overworked and stressed staff
Airlines have openly admitted their inability to support their flight schedules as they struggle with the lack of staff plus high levels of sick leave due to the corona pandemic.
There are not enough pilots, flight attendants, baggage handlers and other employees and thus, hundreds of flights are getting canceled every week.
There is a current shortage of some 7,200 skilled workers in the industry.
“Recruiting and training new staff, particularly pilots and airport security staff, can take time and many positions are unlikely to be filled in time for peak summer travel,” the New York Times reports. “Airlines and airport employees are suffering more: Pilots, flight attendants, security personnel, baggage handlers, and even airport bus drivers report being overworked and stressed out like never before.”
But finding new staff has added to their woes. “People aren’t so attracted by some of the jobs we offer, especially in security and ground handling,” Olivier Jankovec, the head of airports lobby ACI Europe, explained. “Moreover, the wages are no longer high enough because working conditions are what they are, people have to work in shifts and on weekends.”
According to Germany’s ADV airport association, nearly 20% of jobs in security, check-in and aircraft handling remain unfilled.
Strikes and protests
Adding to the staff issues, workers’ unions in various countries have called for strikes to protest the poor working conditions, layoffs and pay cuts.
“A considerable number of workers, listing last-minute cancellations and disorganization of operations as pushing factors for strikes, are expected to keep walking out in the coming days,” warns Schengenvisainfo.
Ryanair and EasyJet workers have announced plans for further strikes this month after cabin crew workers in Spain, Portugal and Belgium staged a three-day strike last weekend that was later joined by colleagues in France and Italy.
In the UK “hundreds of British Airways check-in staff at Heathrow are deciding on strike dates which will further affect the peak summer school holiday travel period,” BBC reports.
Scandinavian Airlines could also see 1,000 pilots based in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden go on strike over wages and cost-cutting measures.
In the Netherlands, another kind of strike could also affect flights as farmers protesting for days against forced farm closures and government plans to cut nitrogen emissions have been blocking highways, including roads to airports, with their tractors and “threatened to bring the entire country to a standstill,” according to Dutch News.
- Some airports, like London’s Heathrow, City and Gatwick, are preemptively canceling flights weeks and months in advance, although the most stressful cancellations are the ones with just a day or two in advance or even at the airport, without any warning.
The situation at UK airports has been described in the British media as “utter chaos” and a ‘total mess’ with officials and passengers urging holidaymakers to avoid flying.
Staff shortages have caused lengthy wait times at security and check-in desks and, as the Daily Mail warns, “problems are only set to get worse when school holidays begin later this month with strike action expected at Heathrow.”
The wave of preemptive cancellations made over the past weeks which will affect tens of thousands hoping to jet off this summer from Heathrow and Gatwick, won’t be enough. “”As the entire aviation industry continues to face into the most challenging period in its history, regrettably it has become necessary to make some further reductions,” a spokesperson for British Airways told BB, as the airline prepares to announce further cancellations over the summer .
- In Ireland, more than 1,000 people missed their flights on a single day in May at the country’s main airport due to long queues.
- A technical malfunction of the baggage sorting system last week at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport caused many flights to depart without luggage, leaving over 1,500 bags on the ground and affecting other flights even after the problem had been corrected.
To aggravate the situation, aviation authorities canceled 17% of flights out of the Paris airports last Friday and another 14% on Saturday due to airport workers’ strikes that will be repeated from July 8 to July 10 to press pay demands, which will cause further disruptions for early summer travelers.
Air France was forced to cancel 85 flights on one day due to the strike at the Charles de Gaulle airport.
- Travelers at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport have experienced hours-long lines, thousands of flight cancellations and thousands of bags missing and lost.
- Airports in Spain have also been facing difficulties. The main Spanish airline Iberia, recently revealed that delays at Madrid’s Barajas Airport have led to nearly 15,000 passengers missing their flights in the last weeks.
- Although Italy is not listed among those suffering the more serious disruptions, the country reported delayed and canceled flights last week due to a strike by air traffic controllers.
- Germany airports are struggling with long lines and delays due to their shortage of pilots, flight attendants, baggage handlers and other employees. Lufthansa has said that it will cancel around 1,000 flights in July due to staff shortages.
Loses and more losses
With the daily cancellations and delays of so many flights also come profound financial losses for airports and airlines.
Travelers have to be compensated from carriers who fail to deliver them to their destinations within a specific window of time, while unions are pressing for better salaries and working conditions.
“Aviation unions have been handed a powerful weapon — the desire of millions of people to have a normal holiday after years of Covid disruptions — and they’re not afraid to pull the trigger,” Politico explains. “They’re hoping to reverse not just pandemic-induced wage cuts, but decades of attrition from cost-cutting airlines that even saw cabin crew at some airlines forced to pay for bottles of water.”
A Bloomberg analysis says that the debt of companies ranging from EasyJet to Lufthansa is trading just above levels considered “distressed.”
“Companies have complained that they were unable to properly prepare for the travel rebound because of a confusing policy on Covid curbs, the lengthy background checks on recruits and the limited aid available to them at the height of the pandemic. But governments are having none of it, saying it’s ultimately up to the industry to put their operations in order after receiving huge subsidies to make it through the pandemic.”
Looking for solutions
Nevertheless, some governments have been announcing special measures to help with the disruptions.
Germany plans to import workers from abroad, particularly from Turkey, fast-tracking work permits and visas for them to fill in at airports at short notice and help out with baggage handling and security checks, according to the German ministers of transport, labor and the interior.
The Irish government, on the other hand, plans to deploy the army to help with security at Dublin Airport if further disruptions may occur.
The British government said that it is helping “get new employees into the aviation industry quickly and without compromising security by accelerating the national security vetting checks for new aviation recruits and helping the industry to get new employees, such as x-ray screeners.”
In a recent open letter to its customers, the Lufthansa Group apologizes for the large number of flight cancellations and notes that the situation is unlikely to improve in the short term.
Admitting that “too many employees, as well as resources, are currently unavailable, not only in Lufthansa,” the airline predicts a dire future that probably won’t get better before winter comes.