Flight delays, cancelations and widespread industrial action impacted European air travel last summer. This year, should you expect much of the same?
While the problems likely won't be as bad as last summer, you can, at the very least, expect pockets of disruption over peak travel periods.
Pandemic-related staffing issues caused much of the problems experienced by the aviation sector in 2022, but this year, the main cause of woe will be strikes. Across Europe, thousands of airport and airline staff, and indeed workers across various industries, are staging walkouts to fight for improved conditions and better wages as the region experiences the highest inflation in decades.
Cancelations and delays are already racking up, particularly in France, where air traffic controllers joined the nationwide strike this week in protest against the government's controversial pension reforms. Since the beginning of the year, operations at Germany's busiest airports have been impacted as ground staff stage walkouts over an ongoing pay dispute. Major disruptions are also likely at the UK's busiest airport over the busy Easter period, with Heathrow security staff planning a 10-day strike from March 31.
However, despite simmering labor tensions, some airports are confident that last year's chaotic scenes of hours-long security queues and missing baggage won't be repeated.
Amsterdam Schiphol, which experienced unprecedented chaos last summer, is capping customer numbers to prevent the pile-on in bookings (despite the backlash from airlines including Delta and KLM) that overwhelmed airport operations in 2022.
Meanwhile, in Dublin Airport, where passengers were forced to queue outside in holding areas last summer, security and check-in wait times are improving as the airport steps up recruitment to fill jobs."Since the middle of last summer, the time it takes passengers to pass through security screening at Dublin Airport has stabilized considerably, with more than 95% of passengers getting through in less than 20 minutes, including during the very busy Christmas and recent St Patrick’s Day period," Dublin Airport's Graeme McQueen tells Lonely Planet. "We are fully focused on reducing these times even further over the months ahead.”
Still, the industry is braced for more disruption, with air traffic management body Eurocontrol predicting that 2023 will be a "hugely challenging year." If you're planning to travel to or from Europe, here are where strikes may affect your itinerary this year in some of the most popular destinations.
The United Kingdom
Heathrow security staff, represented by the union Unite, are staging a 10-day walkout from March 31 until April 9. The strike will impact operations at Terminal 5, one of the airport's busiest terminals. Unite say they are protesting because they cannot make ends meet due to the "low wages paid by Heathrow." The union has so far rejected the 10% pay-raise offers from operators during negotiations.
"They are being forced to take strike action due to need, not greed," said Unite's general secretary Sharon Graham.
"Workers at Heathrow airport are on poverty wages while the chief executive and senior managers enjoy huge salaries. It is the airport's workers who are fundamental to its success and they deserve a fair pay increase," Graham said in a statement.
Heathrow is encouraging airlines to stop selling tickets during Easter because of the strikes, with passengers expected to incur longer waiting times than average.
It comes on top of a five-week strike by passport officers beginning at the start of April, which also promises to make traveling more difficult.
In France, ground staff and airline crews have joined in the national strike in response to the government raising the retirement age from 62 to 64, without a parliamentary vote, and reducing pension benefits. Thursday was the ninth day of widespread industrial action, with tens of thousands of protesters, including lawyers, teachers, students and transport workers, taking to the streets across the country. The protests have been largely peaceful but there have been reports of heavy-handed tactics by police and fires being lit by protestors.
In Paris, only two out of 14 metro lines operated as usual on Thursday and the high-speed TGV and suburban RER networks were severely disrupted. Air travel came to a virtual standstill with air traffic controllers downing their tools this week with a third of flights scrapped at Paris Orly airport and a fifth of flights canceled at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport.
The pension bill is under debate in the French Senate this week and unions have not ruled out continuing the action with polls showing that a vast majority of workers oppose the pension reform. The next strike is scheduled for March 28, but it's likely there'll be ad hoc demonstrations in the meantime. The UK’s Foreign Office notes that ongoing strikes could "lead to disruption to services" across transport networks.
A series of 24-hour strikes are taking place at Spanish airports organized by unionized workers at ground services and cargo handling company Swissport between now and April 13. The walkouts occur every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday at Madrid-Barajas, Barcelona-El Prat, Reus, Alicante, Valencia, Murcia, Málaga, Almería, Salamanca, Valladolid, Burgos, Logroño, Zaragoza, Huesca, Lanzarote, Gran Canaria and Tenerife Sur airports.
A spokesperson for Swissport said: "A comprehensive contingency plan is in place to limit disruptions to our airline customers and passengers traveling via Spanish airports."
German unions are calling on workers across the country’s transport system to stage a one-day strike on Monday, March 27. The ver.di service workers’ union and the EVG union announced the strike on Thursday, according to the Associated Press, with security and ground staff walkouts planned at all German airports except Berlin.
Frankfurt Airport, Germany’s busiest, tweeted that its operations will be "heavily disrupted" and "strongly advised" passengers against traveling to the airport on Monday. At the same time, Munich Airport said it would have no regular passengers flights on Sunday or Monday.
It follows a series of strikes that have been taking place across Germany this year as public sector workers push for better working conditions and salary improvements.
Passengers traveling in Germany are advised to check the current status of their flight with airlines before heading to the airport and traveling with reduced luggage.
The bottom line
Airlines and airport authorities typically offer alternative travel options, such as rebooking or refunding flights during strikes. Still, it’s wise to go through your airline policies and procedures before booking flights. Check the news for updates on potential disruptions before traveling, and consider travel insurance that covers trip disruptions and cancelations for additional peace of mind.