The lines at the airport are long and lost luggage piles up. It will be a chaotic summer for travelers in Europe.
Liz Morgan arrived at Schiphol Airport 4 1/2 hours before her flight to Athens, where she found the security queue winding out of the terminal and squirming in a large tent along a road before re-entering the main building.
“There are elderly people in line, there are children, babies. No water, nothing. No signage, no one to help, no toilets,” said Ms 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 go to the toilet because if you go out of line you lose your spot,” she said.
After two years of pandemic restrictions, travel demand has bounced back, but airlines and airports that have cut jobs during the depths of the COVID-19 crisis are struggling to keep up. With Europe’s busy summer season underway, passengers face chaotic scenes at airports, including lengthy delays, canceled flights and headaches from lost luggage.
Schiphol, the busiest airport in the Netherlands, is cutting back on flights and says there are thousands of aircraft seats per day above the capacity that security personnel can handle. Dutch airline KLM apologized for stranding passengers there this month. It could take months before Schiphol has enough staff to relieve the pressure, Ben Smith, CEO of airline alliance Air France-KLM, said on Thursday.
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 have written to Ireland’s chief of transport asking for urgent action to address “significant delays” at Dublin airport.
According to data from aviation consultancy Cirium, nearly 2,000 flights from major continental European airports were canceled in one week this month, with Schiphol accounting for nearly 9%. A further 376 flights were canceled from UK airports, of which Heathrow accounted for 28%, Cirium said.
It’s a similar story in the United States, where airlines canceled thousands of flights for two days last week due to inclement weather as summer crowds grow.
“In the vast majority of cases, people travel,” said Julia Lo Bue-Said, CEO of the Advantage Travel Group, which represents around 350 UK travel agents. But airports have staff shortages and it takes much longer to process security clearances for newly hired employees, she said.
“They all create bottlenecks in the system,” and it also means “when things go wrong, they go drastically wrong,” she said.
The Biden administration canceling COVID-19 testing for people entering the US is adding an extra boost to pent-up demand for transatlantic travel. Ms. Bue-Said said her group’s agents reported a jump in US bookings after the rule was dropped this month.
For American travelers to Europe, the strengthening of the dollar against the euro and the pound is also a factor, making hotels and restaurants more affordable.
Last week at Heathrow, a sea of unclaimed luggage lay on the floor of a terminal. Blaming technical problems with the baggage system, the airport asked airlines on Monday to cut 10% of flights at two terminals, affecting about 5,000 passengers.
“A number of passengers” may have traveled without 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.
Ms. Spieler, 73, spent at least another hour and a half searching for her luggage in the luggage room, which “was a madhouse, with piles of suitcases everywhere.”
She nearly gave up before she saw her bag on a carousel. She has another trip planned to Greece in a few weeks, but is afraid to go to the airport again.
“Honestly, I’m afraid for my well-being. Am I strong enough to withstand this?” said Mrs. Spieler by e-mail.
In Sweden, security lines at Stockholm Arlanda Airport have been so long this summer that many passengers arrived more than five hours before boarding. So many people show up early that officials are refusing travelers who arrive more than three hours before their flight to avoid congestion.
Despite some improvements, the line to one of the checkpoints on Monday was over 100 meters long.
Four young German women, nervous about missing their flight to Hamburg while waiting to check in their bags, asked other passengers if they could jump at the front of the queue. Once there, they bought fast-track passes to avoid the long security queue.
Lina Wiele said she’d never seen the same chaos at other airports, “not like that, I guess,” before rushing to the fast-track track.
Thousands of pilots, cabin crew, baggage handlers and other airline industry workers were laid off during the pandemic, and now there isn’t enough to cope with the travel boom.
“Some airlines are having a hard time because I think they hoped to restore staffing rates faster than they have so far,” said Willie Walsh, head of the International Air Transport Association.
The workforce shortage following the pandemic is not unique to the aviation industry, Mr Walsh said this week at the aviation trade group’s annual meeting in Qatar.
“What makes it difficult for us is that a lot of the jobs can’t be done remotely, so airlines haven’t been able to offer their staff the same flexibility as other companies,” he said. “Pilots must be present to operate the aircraft, cabin crew must be present, we must have people loading bags and assisting passengers.”
Dismissed aviation workers “have found new jobs with higher wages, with more stable contracts”, says Joost van Doesburg of the trade union FNV, which represents most of the staff at Schiphol. ‘And now everyone wants to travel again’, but workers don’t want jobs at the airport.
The CEO of budget airline Ryanair, Europe’s largest airline, warned that flight delays and cancellations would continue “all summer”. Passengers should expect a “less than satisfying experience,” Michael O’Leary told Sky News.
Some European airports haven’t seen any major problems yet, but are bracing themselves. Vaclav Havel International Airport in Prague expects passenger numbers to increase next week and into July, “when we can face a shortage of staff, especially at security checkpoints,” spokeswoman Klara Diviskova said.
The airport is still short of “dozens of staff” despite a recruiting campaign, 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 about 40,000 passengers.
Two days of strikes this month hit Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, one by security personnel and another by airport staff who say salaries are not keeping up 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 threatens the safety of the flights, although the airline’s CEO Smith said it is not expected to disrupt operations. Airport workers promise another salary-related strike on July 1.
Still, airport problems are unlikely to stop people from flying, said Jan Bezdek, 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,” Mr Bezdek said. “Problems at airports can hardly change that.”
This story was reported by The Associated Press. Corder reports this 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.