Chaos at airports: European flights are exposed to epidemic cuts

Kelvin Chan and Mike Corder, The Associated Press

Published Thursday, June 23, 2022 12:25 PM EST

LONDON (AFP) – Airport lines are long and lost baggage piles up. It will be a chaotic summer for travelers in Europe.

Arriving at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport 4½ hours before her flight to Athens, Liz Morgan found the security line slipping from the building to a large tent along a road before doubling back inside the main building.

“There are old people in line, 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 just carrying a handbag. .

“People couldn’t get to the toilet because if you got off the queue, you lost your place,” she said.

After two years of pandemic restrictions, demand for travel is on the rise again, but airlines and airports that cut jobs during the depths of the COVID-19 crisis are struggling to keep up. As Europe’s busy summer tourism season begins, passengers face chaotic scenes at airports, including lengthy delays, canceled flights and headaches due to lost baggage.

Schiphol Airport, the Netherlands’ busiest, is reducing the number of flights, saying there are thousands of airline seats per day above capacity for security staff. Dutch carrier KLM has apologized for stranding passengers there this month. It could be months before Schiphol has enough staff to ease the pressure, Ben Smith, chief executive of the Air France-KLM alliance, said Thursday.

London Gatwick and Heathrow airports require airlines to specify their flight numbers. Discounted airline easyJet has canceled thousands of summer flights to avoid last-minute cancellations and in response to hats off at Gatwick and Schiphol. North American airlines have written to Ireland’s chief of transport asking him to take urgent action to address “significant delays” at Dublin Airport.

Nearly 2,000 flights were canceled from major continental European airports during one week of this month, with Schiphol accounting for nearly 9%, according to data from aviation consultancy Cirium. Cerium said another 376 flights were canceled from UK airports, of which Heathrow accounts for 28%.

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 tourist numbers swelled in the summer.

“In the vast majority of cases, people are traveling,” said Julia Le Puy Said, CEO of Advantage Travel Group, which represents around 350 travel agents in the UK. But airports are understaffed, and security clearances for newly hired workers are taking longer to process.

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

The Biden administration’s cancellation of COVID-19 tests for people entering the United States gives an additional boost to pent-up demand for transatlantic travel. Boy Said said her group’s clients reported a jump in US bookings after the rule was scrapped this month.

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

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

The airport said “a number of passengers” may have traveled without their luggage.

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

Speller, 73, spent at least another hour and a half trying to find her luggage in the luggage area, which was a “crazy house, with piles of bags everywhere.”

She almost gave up, before discovering her bag on a carousel. She has planned another trip to Greece in a few weeks but she is afraid to go to the airport again.

“Honestly, I am afraid for my safety. Am I strong enough to withstand this?” Spiller said via email.

In Sweden, security queues at Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport were so long this summer that many passengers arrived more than five hours before boarding. So much is emerging so early that officials are turning away travelers who arrive more than three hours before their flight to ease congestion.

Despite some improvements, the line to one of the checkpoints extended more than 100 meters (328 feet) on Monday.

Four young German women, afraid of missing out on their flight to Hamburg while waiting to check their bags, asked the other passengers if they could skip to the front of the line. Once there, they purchased fast-track passes to avoid the long security queue.

Lena Weil, 19, said she hadn’t seen the same level of chaos at other airports, “not like that, I think,” before she rushed onto the fast track.

Thousands of pilots, cabin crew, baggage handlers and other airline industry workers have been laid off during the pandemic, and now there isn’t enough to handle the travel recovery.

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

Walsh said at the annual meeting of the airline group this week in Qatar that the staff shortage after the pandemic is not unique to the airline industry.

“What makes it difficult for us is that many 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 plane, the cabin crew has to be present, and we have to have people loading bags and helping the passengers.”

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

The CEO of Ryanair, Europe’s largest airline, warned that flight delays and cancellations would continue “throughout the summer”.

Some European airports have not had major problems so far but are preparing. Spokeswoman Clara Devskova said that Vaclav Havel International Airport in Prague expects passenger numbers to swell next week and into July “when we see a shortage of staff, especially at the security check.”

She added that the airport is still suffering from a shortage of “dozens of staff” despite the recruitment campaign.

Business dispute also causes problems.

In Belgium, Brussels Airlines said a three-day strike starting Thursday will result in the cancellation of about 315 flights and affect about 40,000 passengers.

British Airways check-in staff and ground staff at Heathrow Airport voted on Thursday to strike for salaries. No dates have been set, but their unions have said it will be this summer.

Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris has been hit over two days this month, one by security staff and one by airport staff who say salaries are not keeping pace with inflation. A quarter of flights were canceled on the second day.

Some Air France pilots threatened a strike on Saturday, warning that crew fatigue was threatening flight security, although Smith, the airline’s chief executive, said it was not expected to disrupt operations. Airport employees vowed another pay-related strike on July 1.

However, Jan Pezdek, a spokesman for the Czech travel agency CK Fischer, which has sold more holiday packages so far this year than before the pandemic, said that nonetheless, airport problems were unlikely to deter people from flying.

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

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

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