It’s becoming a cliché for mainstream and social media to link “air travel in Europe” with “chaos.” Nonetheless, staffing shortages and successive strikes at many of the major airports and main airlines, have made flying extremely chaotic with record numbers of cancellations and delays.
The avalanche of complaints from passengers about ruined holidays, five and six hour queues and lost luggage have set new records as airports and airlines struggle to cope with handling the disruptions crippling the aviation industry this year.
Thousands of passengers across the continent have had flights cancelled in recent months, or have missed them while waiting in nightmare queues. Even so, the demand for travel to Europe is very high for the fall.
Understaffing has been at the root of the problems as clearances for new workers take months to process. But in the most recent weeks, the situation has been aggravated by numerous strikes at airports and airlines — and by overworked and disgruntled employees simply quitting.
The outlook from the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) and the European Travel Commission (ETC) warned in July that “the Travel & Tourism sector’s recovery could be put at serious risk as almost 1.2 million jobs remain unfilled across the E.U.” As they forecasted, still today “a serious number of vacancies remain.”
Just days ago, Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, one of the biggest European hubs for aviation and one of the busiest, announced the resignation of its CEO, Dick Benschop, following a summer of travel turmoil with epic delays and hundreds of flights cancelled.
Since then, the airport has imposed restrictions on the number of passengers it can handle during the fall and winter seasons,.
The decision, according to the airport, was necessary to cope with serious shortages of security guards. That means airlines are forced into more cancellations and re-routings for the upcoming months — not just at Schiphol but at most international airports in Europe as well due to the number of daily flights connections.
The new limits on the numbers of flights and passengers at Schiphol is also the consequence of yet another exodus of workers that has compounded the existing staffing problems due to airlines and airports slashing jobs during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In an effort to quickly ramp back up to serve the fresh burst of post-pandemic summer travellers, employees were paid an extra of €5.25 allowance per hour during July and August. But the bonus has ended and many say they’ve had enough — or not enough without the extra pay.
“Schiphol will reduce the maximum number of departing passengers by around 9,250, or 18 % per day,” Euronews reports.
“This decision first and foremost is bad news for passengers and for airlines,” Hanne Buis, COO of Royal Schiphol Group, told the publication.
“Nevertheless, the decision taken is necessary with the safety of passengers and employees in mind.”
The situation had not improved last week when more than 80 flights were cancelled and lines were hours long outside the terminal doors as the beleaguered airport kept asking airlines to cancel more flights. Around 650 flights were delayed.
The unusual cap being enforced by not only Schiphol but other major airports including London Heathrow, has been loudly criticized by airlines, with several transferring their flights to other airports.
The airport has apologized for the “disappointment” it’s causing. “Cold comfort to thousands of frustrated travellers, many of whom took to social media to vent their anger at the long delays,” Euronews adds.
Schiphol said that the impact of the cap would be clear within two weeks, but some media are reporting it will stay in place until November.
Industrial action over pay and working conditions by air traffic controllers in France over a week ago, grounded more than 1,000 flights. They’re set to strike again on September 28, 29 and 30 unless an agreement is reached.
The air controllers strike lead authorities to ask airlines to slash their schedules from all airports in the country by a staggering 50%. Air France said in a statement that even flights that were scheduled to fly over France were also canceled.
Airlines and other airports across the continent and abroad were inevitably also affected.
Low-budget airline Ryanair said it was forced to cancel 420 flights that were mainly flying over France, impacting 80,000 passengers. The airline said the strikes do “nothing but disrupt thousands of European citizens/visitors’ weekend travel plans.”
The airline is facing its own labor problems as its cabin crews (pilots and flight attendants) and those of Vueling, another low-budget competitor, demand higher pay and better working conditions, announcing strikes across Italy for the beginning of October.
That action follows similar walkouts last June and July.
Ryanair slammed the unions as “irrelevant” and assured customers that there would be no impact on flights.
Despite the difficulties all around, Ryanair has managed to maintain one of the best compliance records “with the fewest cancellations among major carriers this summer, just 3%, (and) was being rewarded with record passenger growth,” The Guardian reports. Ryanair is, according to its CEO Michael O’Leary, “one of the very few airlines in Europe negotiating with airports” to add capacity.
Ryanair operated more than 92,800 flights last month, flying a record 16.9 million passengers.
Capitalizing on the widespread cancellations, the company has announced the addition of more than one million seats to its winter schedules as it also warns that fares will continue to rise between 3% to 5% in coming years and that very low fares could be a thing of the past, at least for now.
In Germany, a pilots strike at Lufthansa at the beginning of the month forced the cancellation of more than 800 flights affecting over 130,00 passengers. A second strike that was announced for this week was averted as the pilots and the airline reached a deal.
Still, the airline has confirmed it will be removing flights from its winter schedule and won’t reinstall them until March next year due to staff shortages, particularly at Frankfurt Airport, another of the busiest European hubs.
The airline is also considering making changes to flight times and destinations starting in October.
Scandinavian airline SAS has cancelled 1,700 flights over the next two months as it struggles to recover from the double whammy of a pilots strike in July and serious financial difficulties.
“The mass cancellation follows a punishing few months for the the flag carrier of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, which grounded 3,700 flights during July and filed for bankruptcy in the United States,” writes Euronews.
The strike by nearly 1,000 SAS pilots protesting pay cuts proposed by management as part of a restructuring plan to ensure the company’s survival, cost the troubled company between €9-12 million per day.
The company reached an agreement with the unions after securing bridge financing during U.S. Chapter 11 bankruptcy-protection proceedings, through a deal with private equity firm Apollo Global Management, Reuters reports.
The government of Sweden has rejected the request for more cash, whereas Denmark has said it might remove some debt and inject funds as long as SAS finds support from other investors.
In Great Britain, last month British Airways (BA), announced the cancellation of more than 1,000 flights before October 29 due to the decision by Heathrow Airport to cap passenger traffic to 100,000 per day.
Staffing shortages are among the issues contributing to long lines at airport security, lost luggage, delays and cancellations.
The airport’s decision has forced other major airlines also to cancel or re-route flights.
Heathrow, which operates as BA’s main hub, has decided to extend the passenger cap until March next year. For the airline, it means that 10,000 more flights, or about 5,000 round-trips — 8% of the airline’s schedule from October 29 to March 2023 — will be cancelled.
In a summary of the situation expected for the upcoming season, Euronews warns that “all the airlines will be cancelling flights between now and March 2023.”
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