Airport chaos: European travel faces cuts due to pandemic

CALVIN CHAN and MIKE CORDER

LONDON (AP) — Airport lines are long and lost luggage is piling up. This summer will be chaotic for travelers in Europe.

Liz Morgan arrived at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport 4.5 hours before her flight to Athens, finding the security check line leaving the terminal for a large tent along the road before returning back to the main building.

“There are elderly people in the queues, there are children, babies. No water, nothing. No signage, no help, no toilets,” said Morgan from Australia, who tried to save time on Monday by checking in online and taking only hand luggage with him.

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

After two years of lockdowns due to the pandemic, travel demand has skyrocketed, but airlines and airports that have cut jobs in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis are struggling to keep up. With the European summer travel season in full swing, passengers are facing chaos at airports, including lengthy delays, flight cancellations and headaches due to lost baggage.

Schiphol, the Netherlands’ busiest airport, is slashing flights, saying thousands of airline seats a day exceed the capacity that security staff can handle. Dutch carrier KLM has apologized for delaying passengers this month. It could be months before Schiphol has enough staff to ease the pressure, Ben Smith, CEO of airline alliance Air France-KLM, said Thursday.

London airports Gatwick and Heathrow are asking airlines to limit the number of flights. Discount carrier easyJet is canceling thousands of summer flights to avoid last-minute cancellations and in response to Gatwick and Schiphol restrictions. North American Airlines wrote to Ireland’s chief of transport demanding urgent action be taken to address “significant delays” at Dublin Airport.

Nearly 2,000 flights from major airports in continental Europe were canceled in a single week this month, with Schiphol accounting for almost 9%, according to aviation consultancy Cirium. Another 376 flights were canceled from UK airports, Cirium said, of which 28% were at Heathrow Airport.

It’s a similar story in the United States, where airlines canceled thousands of flights in two days last week due to bad weather as summer tourist crowds mount.

“In the vast majority of cases, people travel,” says Julia Lo Bue-Said, CEO of Advantage Travel Group, which represents about 350 UK travel agencies. But airports are understaffed and it takes much longer to process clearances for new employees, she said.

“They all create bottlenecks in the system,” and it also means that “when something goes wrong, everything goes completely wrong,” she said.

The Biden administration waiving COVID-19 testing for people entering the US is giving an extra boost to pent-up demand for transatlantic travel. Bue-Said said her group’s agents reported a jump in U.S. bookings after the rule was lifted this month.

For US travelers to Europe, the strengthening of the dollar against the euro and pound sterling is also a factor that makes hotels and restaurants more affordable.

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

The airport said “several passengers” may have been traveling without luggage.

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

Shpiler, 73, spent at least another hour and a half trying to find her luggage in the luggage compartment, which “was a madhouse with piles of suitcases everywhere.”

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

“Honestly, I’m afraid for my well-being. Am I strong enough to endure this?” Spieler said in an email.

This summer in Sweden, security lines at Arlanda Airport in Stockholm were so long that many passengers arrived more than five hours before boarding time. So many people are arriving early that authorities are turning away travelers arriving more than three hours before departure to ease congestion.

Despite some improvements, the line at one of the checkpoints stretched over 100 meters (328 feet) on Monday.

Four young German women, nervous about missing their flight to Hamburg, asked other passengers as they waited to check in their luggage if they could get to the front of the line. Once there, they bought fast-track passes to avoid the long check-in line.

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

Thousands of pilots, flight attendants, porters and other aviation industry workers have been made redundant during the pandemic and are now not enough to deal with the travel rebound.

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

The post-pandemic staff shortage is not unique to the aviation industry, Walsh said at the airline trade group’s annual meeting this week in Qatar.

“What makes it difficult for us is that many jobs cannot be done remotely, so airlines cannot offer the same flexibility to their employees as other companies,” he said. “Pilots must be present to fly the aircraft, flight attendants must be present, we must have people loading bags and helping passengers.”

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

The CEO of budget airline Ryanair, Europe’s biggest carrier, has warned that delays and flight cancellations will continue “all summer long”. Passengers should expect “a less than satisfying experience,” Michael O’Leary told Sky News.

Some European airports have not yet faced big problems, but are preparing. Prague’s Vaclav Havel International Airport is expected to see an increase in passenger numbers next week and into July, “when we may face staff shortages, especially at security checks,” spokeswoman Klara Diviskova said.

The airport is still short of “dozens of staff,” she said, despite a recruitment campaign.

Labor conflicts also cause problems.

In Belgium, Brussels Airlines said a three-day strike that began on Thursday would lead to the cancellation of about 315 flights and affect about 40,000 passengers.

There have been two days of strikes at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport this month, one by security personnel and another by airport employees 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 to strike on Saturday, warning that crew fatigue threatens flight safety, though Smith, the airline’s CEO, said it would not result in disruption. Airport staff are promising another payroll strike on July 1st.

However, problems at the airport are unlikely to stop people from flying, said Jan Bezdek, a spokesman for the Czech travel agency CK Fischer, which has sold more holiday packages this year than before the pandemic.

“What we are seeing is that people cannot wait to travel after the pandemic,” Bezdek said. “Any problems at the airports are unlikely to change that.”

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

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