LONDON – Do you have any travel plans for Europe this summer? Don’t forget to pack your passport, sunscreen and lots of patience.
Liz Morgan arrived at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport 4 1/2 hours before her flight to Athens to find the security line snaking out of the terminal and into a large tent along a street before heading back into the main building.
“There are elderly people in the queues, there are children, babies. No water, no nothing. No signage, nobody to help, no toilets,” said Morgan, who hails from Australia and had tried to save time on Monday by checking in online and only taking a carry-on bag.
People “couldn’t go to the bathroom because you lost your seat if you got out of the queue,” she said.
Travel demand has picked up again after two years of pandemic restrictions, but airlines and airports, which have been shedding jobs in the depths of the COVID-19 crisis, are struggling to keep up. With the busy summer tourism season underway in Europe, passengers encounter chaotic scenes at airports, including long delays, canceled flights and headaches from lost luggage.
Schiphol, the busiest airport in the Netherlands, is cutting flights and says there are thousands of seats a day that exceed security staff’s capacity. Dutch airline KLM apologized for stranding passengers there earlier this month.
London’s Gatwick and Heathrow airports are asking airlines to limit their flight numbers. Discount airline easyJet is canceling thousands of summer flights to avoid last-minute cancellations and in response to caps at Gatwick and Schiphol. North American airlines wrote to Ireland’s chief of transport, demanding urgent action to deal with “significant delays” at Dublin Airport.
Nearly 2,000 flights from major continental European airports were canceled for a week this month, with Schiphol accounting for almost 9%, according to aeronautics consultancy Cirium. A further 376 flights were canceled from UK airports, with Heathrow accounting for 28%, Cirium said.
Similarly in the United States, airlines canceled thousands of flights over two days last week due to inclement weather while summer tourist numbers surged.
“In the vast majority of cases, people travel,” said Julia Lo Bue-Said, CEO of Advantage Travel Group, which represents around 350 UK travel agencies. But airports are understaffed and it takes much longer to process security clearances for newly hired workers, she said.
“They all create bottlenecks in the system,” and it also means “when something goes wrong, it goes drastically wrong,” she said.
The Biden administration’s abolition of COVID-19 testing for people entering the United States gives an additional boost to pent-up demand for transatlantic travel. Bue-Said said travel agents her group represents have reported a spike in US bookings after the requirement was dropped this month.
For American travelers to Europe, the strengthening of the dollar against the euro and the pound is also playing a role, making it more affordable to pay for hotels and restaurants.
A sea of unclaimed baggage covered the floor of a terminal at Heathrow last week. The airport blamed technical malfunctions in the baggage system and asked airlines to cut 10% of flights at two terminals on Monday, affecting about 5,000 passengers.
“Some passengers” may have traveled without their luggage, the airport said.
When cookbook author Marlena Spieler flew back to London from Stockholm this month, it took her three hours to get through passport control.
The 73-year-old player spent at least an hour and a half trying to find her luggage in the left luggage office, which was “a madhouse, full of suitcases everywhere”.
She almost gave up before she spotted her bag on a carousel. She has another trip to Greece planned in a few weeks but is afraid to go back to the airport.
“Honestly, I fear for my well-being. Am I strong enough to withstand this?” Player said via email.
In Sweden, security queues at Stockholm Arlanda Airport were so long this summer that many passengers arrived more than five hours before boarding. So many show up early that officials turn away travelers who arrive more than three hours before their flight to ease congestion.
Despite some improvements, the line to one of Monday’s checkpoints stretched more than 100 meters (328 feet).
Four young German women, nervous about missing their flight to Hamburg while waiting to check in their luggage, asked other passengers if they could join the front of the line. Once there, they bought fast track passes to bypass the long security line.
Lina Wiele, 19, said she hadn’t seen the same chaos at other airports, “not like that I think,” before rushing into the fast lane.
Thousands of pilots, flight attendants, baggage handlers and other airline industry workers have been laid off during the pandemic and now there are not enough of them to cope with the drop in travel.
“Some airlines are struggling because they were hoping to refill staffing levels faster than they could,” said Willie Walsh, head of the International Air Transport Association.
The post-pandemic workforce shortage is not limited to the airline industry, Walsh said at the Airline Trade Group’s annual meeting in Qatar this week.
“What makes it difficult for us is that many of the jobs cannot be operated remotely, so airlines have not been able to offer their employees the same flexibility as other companies,” he said. “Pilots have to be present to operate the plane, cabin crew have to be present, we have to have people to load bags and help passengers.”
Dismissed aviation workers “have found new jobs with higher wages and more stable contracts,” said Joost van Doesburg of the FNV union, which represents most employees at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. “And now everyone wants to travel again,” but the workers don’t want jobs at the airport.
The CEO of low-cost airline Ryanair, Europe’s largest airline, warned there would be flight delays and cancellations “all summer long”. Passengers should expect a “less than satisfactory experience,” Michael O’Leary told Sky News.
Some European airports haven’t seen major problems yet, but are preparing for them. Vaclav Havel International Airport in Prague expects passenger numbers to increase next week and into July “when there could be a shortage of staff, especially at security checks,” spokeswoman Klara Diviskova said.
The airport is still “short of dozens of employees” despite launching a hiring campaign earlier in the year, she said.
Labor disputes also cause problems.
In Belgium, Brussels Airlines said a three-day strike starting Thursday will force the cancellation of about 315 flights and affect around 40,000 passengers.
Two days of strikes hit Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport this month, one by security guards and another by airport workers who say salaries are not keeping pace with inflation. A quarter of the flights were canceled on the second day. Some Air France pilots are threatening a strike on Saturday, warning that crew fatigue is threatening flight safety, while airport staff vowed another pay-related strike for July 1.
Still, the airport problems are unlikely to discourage 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’re seeing is that people can’t bear to wait to travel after the pandemic,” Bezdek said. “Possible problems at airports can hardly change that.”