Chaos at airports: European travel runs into pandemic cutbacks | business news

By KELVIN CHAN and MIKE CORDER Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — Queues at airports 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’s Schiphol airport four and a half hours before her flight to Athens to find the security line leading out of the terminal and into a large tent along a road before returning to the main building.

“There are older people in the queues, there are children, babies. No water, no nothing. No signage, no help, no toilets,” said Morgan, who is from Australia and had tried to save time on Monday by checking in online and carrying only a carry-on bag.

People “couldn’t get to the bathroom because if you got out of line, you lost your place,” he said.

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After two years of pandemic restrictions, travel demand is growing again, but airlines and airports that cut jobs during the worst of the COVID-19 crisis are struggling to keep up. With Europe’s busy summer tourist season, passengers are faced with chaotic scenes at airports, including long delays, canceled flights and headaches from lost luggage.

Schiphol, the Netherlands’ busiest airport, is cutting flights, saying there are thousands of airline seats per day beyond the capacity security staff can handle. Dutch airline 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 airline alliance, said on Thursday.

London’s Gatwick and Heathrow airports are asking airlines to limit their flight numbers. Discount airline easyJet is scrapping thousands of summer flights to avoid last-minute cancellations and in response to limits at Gatwick and Schiphol. North American Airlines wrote to Ireland’s transport chief demanding urgent action to address “significant delays” at Dublin airport.

Nearly 2,000 flights from mainland European airports were canceled for a week this month, with Schiphol accounting for almost 9%, according to data from aviation consultancy Cirium. A further 376 flights from UK airports were cancelled, 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 due to bad weather just as the summer tourist crowds are growing.

“In the vast majority of cases, people travel,” said Julia Lo Bue-Said, chief executive of Advantage Travel Group, which represents some 350 UK travel agencies. But airports are understaffed and it’s taking much longer to process security clearances for newly hired workers, she said.

“Everyone is creating bottlenecks in the system,” and it also means that “when things go wrong, they go drastically wrong,” he said.

The Biden administration’s elimination of COVID-19 testing for people entering the US is giving a further boost to pent-up demand for transatlantic travel. Bue-Said said agents in his group reported an increase in US bookings after the rule was dropped this month.

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

At Heathrow, a sea of ​​unclaimed baggage littered the floor of a terminal last week. The airport blamed technical glitches with the baggage system and asked airlines to cut 10% of flights at two terminals on Monday, affecting some 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 a madhouse, with loads of bags everywhere.”

She almost gives up, before seeing her bag on a carousel. She has another trip to Greece planned in a few weeks, but she worries about going back to the airport.

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

In Sweden, security lines at Stockholm’s Arlanda airport have been so long this summer that many passengers arrived more than five hours before boarding time. So many arrive 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 stretched more than 100 meters (328 feet) on Monday.

Four young German women, nervous about missing their flight to Hamburg as they waited to check their bags, asked other passengers if they could come to the front of the line. Once there, they bought fast-track 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 guess” – before hurrying into the fast lane.

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

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

Post-pandemic staffing 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 for their workforce 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 loading bags and helping passengers.”

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

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

Some European airports haven’t seen any big problems yet, but they’re getting stronger. Prague’s Vaclav Havel International Airport expects passenger numbers to rise next week and into July, “when we might experience a lack of staff, especially at security checks,” spokeswoman Klara Diviskova said.

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

The labor struggle is also causing problems.

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

British Airways check-in staff and ground staff at Heathrow voted on Thursday to strike over wages. No dates have been set, but his unions said it would be this summer.

Two days of strikes hit Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport this month, one by security staff and another by airport staff who say wages 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 is threatening the safety of flights, although Smith, the airline’s CEO, said it is not expected to disrupt operations. Airport staff promise another pay-related strike on July 1.

Still, airport problems are unlikely to put people off, 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 cannot bear to wait to travel after the pandemic,” Bezdek said. “Any problem at the airports can hardly change that.”

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.

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

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