Airport chaos: European travel suffers pandemic cuts

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FILE – Travelers queue through security at London Heathrow Airport, Wednesday, June 22, 2022. People face travel disruptions and long lines at airports amid the industry’s current staffing crisis. After two years of pandemic restrictions, travel demand is back in full force, but airlines and airports that cut jobs during the depths of the COVID-19 crisis are struggling to keep up. With Europe’s busy summer tourism season underway, passengers are facing chaotic scenes at airports, including long delays, canceled flights and lost luggage headaches. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein, Archive)

SHOVEL

Airport lines are long and lost luggage is piling up. It’s going to be a chaotic summer for travelers in Europe.

Liz Morgan arrived at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol 4.5 hours before her flight to Athens, finding the security line snaking out of the terminal and entering a large tent along a road before heading back inside the main building.

“There are elderly people in the queues, there are children, babies. No water, nothing. No signage, no one helping, no toilets,” said Morgan, who is from Australia and tried to save time on Monday by checking in online and taking just a carry-on bag.

People “couldn’t go to the bathroom because if you got out of line, you lost your seat,” she said.

After two years of pandemic restrictions, demand for travel has picked up again, but airlines and airports that cut jobs during the depths of the COVID-19 crisis are struggling to keep up. With Europe’s busy summer tourism season underway, passengers are facing chaotic scenes at airports, including long delays, canceled flights and lost luggage headaches.

Schiphol, the Netherlands’ busiest airport, is cutting back on flights, saying there are thousands of air seats a day beyond the capacity security staff can handle. Dutch carrier KLM has apologized for leaving passengers stranded there this month. It could 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’s Gatwick and Heathrow airports are asking airlines to limit their flight numbers. Discount carrier easyJet is scrapping thousands of summer flights to avoid last-minute cancellations and in response to limits at Gatwick and Schiphol. US airlines have written to Ireland’s head of transport demanding urgent action to deal with “significant delays” at Dublin airport.

Nearly 2,000 flights from mainland Europe’s main airports were canceled for a week this month, with Schiphol accounting for nearly 9%, according to data from aviation consultancy Cirium. Another 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 for two days last week because of bad weather, just as the summer tourist crowds grow.

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

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

The Biden administration dismantling COVID-19 testing for people entering the US is giving an extra boost to pent-up demand for transatlantic travel. Bue-Said said agents in his group reported a jump in US reserves after the rule was dropped this month.

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

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

“Several passengers” may have traveled without their luggage, the airport said.

When cookbook writer Marlena Spieler flew back to London from Stockholm this month, it took her three hours to get through passport control.

Spieler, 73, spent at least another hour and a half trying to find his luggage in the baggage claim area, which “was like a madhouse, with piles of suitcases everywhere.”

She almost gave up, before she saw her bag on a merry-go-round. She has another trip to Greece planned in a few weeks but is apprehensive about going to the airport again.

“Frankly, I’m scared for my well-being. Am I strong enough to take this?” Spieler said via email.

In Sweden, security lines at Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport were so long this summer that many passengers arrived more than five hours before departure time. So many are arriving early that authorities are turning away travelers arriving more than three hours before their flight to ease congestion.

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

Four young German women, nervous about missing their flight to Hamburg while waiting to check their bags, asked fellow passengers if they could jump to the front of the line. Once there, they bought fast passes to avoid the long security line.

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

Thousands of pilots, cabin crew, baggage handlers and other workers in the aviation industry have been laid off during the pandemic and there are now not enough to cope with the travel recovery.

“Some airlines are struggling because I think they were hoping to get back to staffing levels faster than they can,” said Willie Walsh, head of the International Air Transport Association.

Post-pandemic staff shortages are 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 of the jobs cannot be operated remotely, so airlines have not been able to offer the same flexibility to their workforce as other companies,” he said. “Pilots have to be present to operate the aircraft, cabin crew have to be present, we have to have people carrying bags and helping passengers.”

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

The CEO of low-cost airline Ryanair, Europe’s biggest carrier, warned that flight delays and cancellations would continue “throughout the summer”.

Some European airports haven’t had major problems yet, but they are getting ready. Prague’s Vaclav Havel International Airport expects passenger numbers to increase next week and into July, “when we may miss staff, especially at security checks,” spokeswoman Klara Diviskova said.

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

The labor struggle is also causing problems.

In Belgium, Brussels Airlines said a three-day strike from Thursday will force the cancellation of around 315 flights and affect around 40,000 passengers.

British Airways check-in staff and ground staff at Heathrow voted on Thursday to strike wages. Dates have not been set, but their unions said it would be this summer.

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

Some Air France pilots are threatening a strike on Saturday, warning that crew fatigue is threatening the flight’s safety, although Smith, the airline’s CEO, has said he should not halt operations. Airport officials promise another wage strike on July 1.

Still, airport problems shouldn’t stop people flying, said Jan Bezdek, a spokesman for Czech travel agency CK Fischer, which has sold more vacation packages so far this year than before the pandemic.

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

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Corder reported from The Hague. AP reporters Aleksandar Furtula in Amsterdam, Karel Janicek in Prague, Karl Ritter in Stockholm, Angela Charlton in Paris, Samuel Petrequin in Brussels and David Koenig in Dallas contributed.

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Follow Kelvin Chan on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/chanman.

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