At the onset of summer travel, cancellations, delays and long lines have plagued airports in Europe. In Dublin, London, Amsterdam, Lisbon, and Madrid, thousands of passsengers have missed flights in recent weeks due to long queues at security and check-in desks, with some passengers in line for hours just to get inside the terminal buildings. With strike action scheduled for the summer across the European aviation industry, it's unlikely the situation will improve anytime soon.
While some airports have introduced new queue management systems to deal with the issue, passengers continue to face significant disruptions due to staff shortages and increased demand now that most COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted. In Lisbon, the union chief for Portugal's border and immigration service SEF, told Reuters that the long lines are unlikely to ease into the main tourist season, even though the airport plans to double border control staff.
Why are airline passengers in Europe facing disruptions?
Security agents, baggage personnel, cleaning, catering and ground staff were all laid off during the pandemic when flights were grounded and people weren't traveling. Now airports and airlines are struggling to find more workers as travel rebounds. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) expects total passenger numbers in Europe to reach 86% of 2019 figures in 2022, before making a full recovery in 2024. But it seems many companies were not anticipating travel to return so fast and are scrambling to recruit and train new hires.
"Demand has been coming back... much faster than the ability of the industry to scale up," John Holland-Kaye, chief executive of London's Heathrow airport, told the Financial Times last week. Holland-Kaye warned the problems facing Heathrow in particular could last for 18 months. "With no revenues [and] very high fixed costs... Building that capacity back again is very hard."
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Madrid's Barajas Airport has gone on a hiring spree to recruit new staff after Spanish airline Iberia reported on Monday that 15,000 passengers have missed their flights since March due to long lines at the airport. But hiring is just the beginning. The positions that need to be filled are highly regulated and require specialist training that could take months to complete. There have also been reports that new contracts being offered to airport staff across the industry are below par. New security staff in Dublin Airport, for example, are only guaranteed 30 hours per week but are expected to be available for 40 hours in new contracts on offer with an entrance rate of pay of €14.40 ($15.15) per hour.
Speaking to Lonely Planet, SIPTU - the union that represents Dublin Airport staff - suggested the hourly rate of pay may be a deterrent in recruiting new staff. "The €14.40 is a composite rate of pay which includes shift pay (20%). The hourly rate of pay is only €11.31 per hour when adjusted for the shift premium, which is only 8% above the national minimum wage of €10.50," SIPTU Aviation Organiser, Niall Phillips, explained.
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"For the highly regulated and specialised work that an ASU officer does the hourly rate of pay is not sufficient to attract workers into the role and is not appearing to be enough to retain new recruits in the positions. There are currently approximately 200 new recruits in security with plans to significantly increase these numbers over the coming months," he added.
The IATA said the most pressing issue now is clearing the queues for security clearances as summer travel gets underways. They're urging the ground handling sector worldwide to adopt a stronger talent acquisition strategy, streamline onboarding processes and develop a more compelling retention propostion.
"Additional resources are needed to accelerate the processing times for employment security clearances which can be as much as six months in some markets. The shortages we are experiencing today are a symptom of the longer-term challenges to achieve a stable talent base in ground handling,” said Nick Careen, IATA’s senior vice president for the operations, safety and security.
Summer of strikes
Italy is one of the few European countries to escape the long lines that have faced passengers flying elsewhere in Europe — but it hasn't escaped disruption. A number of flights were delayed or cancelled on June 8 due to transport strikes from stafff working for low-cost airlines such as Ryanair, EasyJet and Volotea over pay and working conditions. Unions representing staff for Ryanair in Italy have called for a 24-hour strike on June 25 and more strikes are likely to take place there across the summer.
Similiarly, Portugal's union of civil aviation personnel SNPVAC said Ryanair's Portuguese cabin staff will go on strike for three days in late June.
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French airports too are set to be hit by strike action in July as workers fight for salary increases to cope with the cost of living crisis. Last week (June 9) a quarter of flights departing from Paris-Charles de Gaulle and Paris-Orly were cancelled because of strikes.
Scandinavian airline SAS could go on strike at the end of June, with more than 1,000 pilots in Denmark, Norway and Sweden set to walk out on June 29, according to The Local Denmark.
Tips for airline passengers
Following the chaotic scenes witnessed over the past few weeks, some airports have issued advice for passengers including arriving early, preparing your liquids and laptops for security checks before getting to the airport, and ensuring passports are up-to-date.
While officials need to work on long-term solutions to manage queues and cooperate with unions, here's what else you can do to help the process run a little smoother if you are flying from a European airport.
Download your airport and airline apps
This will save you a lot of hassle. Many airports share security screening wait times with their apps so you can see live wait times before you even get to the airport, allowing you to plan your arrival time accordingly.
Similarly your airline's app will also help you anticipate any disruptions or cancellations. When you download the mobile app, you'll generally get immediate alerts and some airlines will offer re-booking options and notifications through the app when facing delays.
Take a screenshot of your boarding pass
Take a screenshot of your boarding pass so you can easily access it as soon as you get to the airport. You can also save it on your Apple Wallet on iOS, or PassWallet on Android. Having a scannable, offline version of your boarding pass can save you scrambling to access it when the airport WiFi is patchy and frustration is mounting behind you at the check-in queue.
Bring a portable phone charger
If your boarding pass is stored on your phone, you don't want to be caught short with a dead battery when you finally reach your gate. Pack a portable battery charger and necessary cables in your hand luggage so you can power your phone when you need it.
Drop your bags off early
Airlines like British Airways and Jet2 allow customers to check their bags in a day before departure. Find out if this is a service your airline offers to ease pressure at check-in desks when you fly.
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Purchase fast passes or priority boarding if possible
Some airports offer fast-pass access that can help you get through security quicker for an additional fee. It's not always available, particularly as demand for it has increased in recent weeks. And there have been widespread complaints that these 'fast lanes' have been equally as slow as regular ones of late, but it's a good idea to enquire before you get to the airport. It's also worth asking your airline about advance check-ins or priority boarding access.
With passengers typically spending more time in the airport than usual to get ahead of the queues, many shops, cafes and restaurants are running low on food and drink options to meet increased demand. Passengers traveling through European airports have reported long lines at restaurants and retailers selling out of pre-packaged sandwiches and meals in the early afternoon. In the UK, people traveling on TUI flights have been told that they may need to bring their own food and drink onboard in the coming weeks as staffing shortages at the company's catering supplier have meant that hot or cold meals cannot be served on short- and mid-haul flights for now.
Bring snacks that you know you can check through security screening, any drinks over 100ml will have to be purchased on the other side.
Find out what compensation you're entitled to if you miss your flight
When thousands of passengers missed their flights in Dublin in May due to mismanaged queues, the Dublin Airport Authority told Lonely Planet that many of their airline partners offered passengers the ability to amend their bookings to the next available flight without additional charges. Those who missed their flights and incurred additional charges were directed to the airport's customer support team to claim for vouched expenses incurred.
This isn't something that every airline or airport will offer you so make sure you know what options are available before you fly. It's also a good idea to take out a travel insurance policy that covers you for missed, delayed or cancelled flights.