By Cecilia Rodriguez
The air travel situation in Europe is already so bad that some airlines are advising passengers not to fly this summer. It’s the season of “Air Armageddon” – the name given to the chaotic reality of summer travel, with airlines and airports bracing for collapse and travelers experiencing stressful experiences.
Huge queues are a common sight at airports across Europe and the unpleasant stories are myriad. Last-minute cancellations even after would-be passengers had already cleared security, lost luggage, five-, six-, and even seven-hour delays, hours-long lines at check-in and customs, and no one to help at airline counters .
“Across Europe and the US, the joyous return of summer travel has turned into a season of chaos,” the New York Times reported in an article titled “Why Air Travel Is Hell This Summer,” adding that it is something that “it won’t be fixed anytime soon”.
“Air Armageddon” and war
And that’s not the worst. The summer has just begun and the predictions of the experts are extremely discouraging.
Europe’s “Air Armageddon” is the result of what The New York Times is calling “the perfect storm,” which includes, among other factors, the lifting of coronavirus travel restrictions across Europe that sparked a surge in demand as airlines, airports and other related companies are struggling to staff their operations after thousands of workers were laid off at the height of the pandemic as the industry practically ground to a halt in the past two years.
“Recent developments in the bloc of 27 have left thousands of passengers waiting, with the lucky ones having their flights canceled and the rest waiting for hours to board theirs,” writes Schengenvisainfo.
Then there is the European war in Ukraine, which severely limits the available airspace across the continent. According to Lufthansa, the war is leading to massive bottlenecks in the skies and thus further flight delays.
Overworked and stressed staff
Airlines have openly admitted their inability to support their routes as they are hit by staff shortages combined with high levels of sick leave due to the coronavirus.
There aren’t enough pilots, flight attendants, baggage handlers and other employees, so hundreds of flights are canceled every week.
Today there is a shortage of around 7,200 skilled workers in the sector.
However, finding new staff adds more to the companies’ woes. “People are not so attracted to some of the positions we offer, especially in security and ground handling,” explains Olivier Jankovec, head of the airport association ACI Europe. “Also, wages are no longer high enough because the working conditions are what they are, people have to work shifts and weekends.”
According to the German airport association ADV, almost 20% of jobs in security, check-in and aircraft handling remain vacant.
Strikes and protests
On top of personnel issues, labor unions in various countries have called for strikes to protest poor working conditions, layoffs and wage cuts.
Ryanair and EasyJet workers have announced plans for further strikes this month, following a three-day strike by cabin crew last weekend in Spain, Portugal and Belgium, which was later joined by colleagues in France and Italy .
In the UK, “hundreds of British Airways check-in staff at Heathrow are deciding strike dates that will further affect the peak summer school holiday period,” reports the BBC.
Scandinavian Airlines may also see 1,000 pilots based in Denmark, Norway and Sweden strike over pay and cost-cutting measures.
In the Netherlands, another type of strike could also affect flights, as farmers protesting farm closures and government plans to cut nitrogen emissions have blocked highways with tractors, including those to airports, and “threaten to impose a nationwide standstill,” according to Dutch News.
The situation at UK airports has been described in British media as “absolute chaos” with officials and passengers urging holidaymakers to avoid flights.
With daily cancellations and delays of so many flights, serious financial losses follow for airports and airlines.
Travelers must be compensated by carriers who do not get them to their destinations within a certain time frame, while unions push for better wages and working conditions.
“Airline unions have been given a powerful weapon — the desire of millions of people to take regular vacations after years of Covid disruption — and they’re not afraid to pull the trigger,” Politico explains. “They hope to reverse not only the wage cuts caused by the pandemic, but also the wear and tear of decades of airline cost-cutting, which has even seen cabin crew on some airlines forced to pay for bottled water.”
Looking for solutions
However, some governments have announced special measures to help with the problems.
Germany plans to bring in workers from abroad, mainly from Turkey, by providing work permits and fast-track visas to staff airports immediately and help with baggage handling and security checks, according to German transport, labor ministers and Interior.
The Irish government, for its part, plans to use the military to help with security at Dublin Airport if further problems arise.
The UK government said it was helping “to get new workers into the aviation industry quickly and without compromising safety, speeding up national checks for new hires and helping the aviation industry get new workers, such as those who operate X-rays”.
In a recent open letter to its customers, the Lufthansa Group apologizes for the large number of flight cancellations and notes that the situation looks unlikely to improve in the short term.
Admitting that “too many employees, as well as resources, are currently unavailable, and not just at Lufthansa,” the airline predicts a grim future that likely won’t improve before winter arrives.