Air Travel Nightmares Aren’t Going Away Soon. Here’s Why

One morning in early June, the security line at Copenhagen’s Kastrup airport snaked in long, grumpy arcs away from the scanners, back through the automated boarding pass machines to the end of the departures hall, down the stairs, and all the way back around to the 7-Eleven that stands at the terminal’s entry. “It was bad,” said one of the young workers in neon-yellow polo shirts, who had been hired recently to calm nerves and provide information to irritated and desperate travelers. There are a lot of them these days, even at an airport that is usually a model of smooth transit; Kastrup has been voted the world’s most efficient airport more than a dozen times. Pulling up a video of the seemingly endless queue on her phone, the worker added, “Normally we can bring people through the line if they’re going to miss their flight. But that day we were told we couldn’t because that was basically everybody.”

Across Europe and the United States, what was supposed to be the summer of travel’s joyful return has instead become a season of chaos. Soul-killingly long lines at check-in and security; hundreds of flights canceled every week because airlines can’t staff them; luggage that doesn’t show up for days. Many of these are pandemic-induced problems. Over the past two decades, the airline industry was virtually unable to meet the growing demand. Even though it is terrible for passengers, the airline and airport workers are also suffering: Pilots, flight attendants security personnel baggage handlers as well as pilots report that they feel stressed-out and overwhelmed like never before.

With the Fourth of July holiday weekend bearing down in the U.S. and widespread labor strikes underway, the situation doesn’t look like it will get fixed anytime soon. “Summer will still be rough,” says Umang Gupta, managing director of Alton Aviation Consultancy. “Airlines obviously want to take advantage of the fact that demand is coming back, but I don’t see that all these connected entities will be able to hire up by then.”

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In June, it was taking four hours to get through security at Dusseldorf airport, while just last week at Amsterdam’s Schiphol, the line for security stretched out the terminal, through a tent set up by the side of the road, and back into the building. A technical error at Heathrow on the weekend of June 18-19 resulted in a “baggage mountain” of unclaimed luggage that, 10 days later, has reportedly started to stink.

That same month, Iberia airlines reported that since March, 15,000 passengers had missed their connections through Madrid’s Barajas airport. Heathrow in London and Gatwick in London both requested that airlines limit the number of daily flights they fly on several occasions over the past two months. EasyJet has cancelled 40 flights per day during June; British Airways took 8,000 from its March-October schedule. A random search of flight tracking site reveals that United, KLM and American are all cancelling dozens every day.

Long lines form outside Schiphol Airport’s terminal to register and board flights. This is June 21, 2022.

Peter Dejong—AP

This is due to a combination staff shortages, rebounding travel and a mixture of both. While global passenger numbers remain below 2019 levels, March saw a 425 percent increase in the number of passengers flying European airlines compared to the year before. The North American counterparts experienced a 228% rise. Each airport has seen similar trends: 5.9M more people flew through Paris’ airports in May than through Amsterdam or Frankfurt. In the same time period last year, however, there were 4.1M more travelers through Amsterdam. “Passenger numbers are higher now than at any time since the start of the pandemic—and growing,” says Sarah Fairley, senior press officer at Heathrow Airport, in a written statement. “We have faced 40 years of growth in just four months and that has put the entire aviation industry under pressure.”

Given the pent-up demand, shouldn’t airlines and airports have seen the surge coming? “Yes and no,” says Alton Aviation’s Gupta. “It seems obvious that, especially going into summer, demand was going to be high. But what we’re hearing universally from the airlines is that the rebound has been more dramatic than even the most optimistic projections predicted.”

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Some airlines were cautious about increasing their speed due to travel restrictions and false starts. “There were so many variables that it was impossible to predict when the uptick was going to happen,” adds Gupta.

The global aviation industry is still dealing with high numbers of staff absences from successive waves of COVID-19, as well as the fact it shed some 2.3 million employees—a full 21% of its workforce—during the pandemic. These shortages affect all levels of the aviation industry, from flight attendants to pilots and baggage handlers to security staff to air traffic controllers and those who assist passengers on board. They require time to increase their productivity. “There is an incredibly tight labor market across the whole of Europe—that’s not unique to aviation,” says Virgina Lee, director of media and communications for Airports Council International’s Europe branch. “But we have to also remember that when you’re recruiting people to work inside an airport, they have to have a security clearance. It’s not like recruiting for a supermarket.”

Obtaining clearances can take up to 16 weeks in some countries—on top of the time it takes to find candidates and train new employees. “In order to be fully staffed today, you would have had to start that process in the middle of December,” says Lee. “When we were, if you remember, at the peak of Omicron and indeed the peak of uncertainty about travel restrictions.”

At the best of times, an airport is a well-oiled machine, where the infrastructure’s staff combines with airlines’ and third-party providers to keep travel running smoothly. That interdependence is what explains why airports fail to fix one problem and others continue popping up. At Copenhagen’s Kastrup airport, for example, the administration decided to beef up its security staff back in November while air travel in Europe was still relatively moribund. “It cost a lot of money to hire people we didn’t immediately need at the time,” says Lise Agerley Kürstein, Copenhagen airport’s head of communication. “But our CEO took the decision so we would be ready for summer holidays.”

The lines of passenger luggage are arranged at Terminal 2 Heathrow Airport, London on June 19, 2022.

Henry Nicholls—Reuters

They didn’t quite get there, but with 330 hires since January, the security staff is almost back to its pre-pandemic level, and the snaking lines of late May and early June have mostly given way to “normal” wait times, Agerly Kürstein says. She admits that security is just one aspect of these disruptions. “The airlines, the third-party companies, they’re all having problems getting employees too, and that makes it difficult for everyone. How do you build up a whole airport again?”

Many people who worked once in airports are now looking for more secure, better-paying, and less challenging careers. Workloads have increased dramatically for those who have stayed in the industry—which could lead to further departures. “When we started getting into the spring, the airlines were like, there’s the demand, let’s make it work,” says a flight attendant for a major U.S. carrier that flies to Europe. She asked for anonymity, as the airline had not granted her permission to speak. “But we just don’t have the people. On any day, I can look on our app and see that we’re down 70 people, and that’s just flight attendants from one base.”

Continue reading: Barcelona Can Its Relationship with Tourists after the Pandemic Be Repaired?

This has led to her and her co-workers working more hours in stressful situations. With so many flights being canceled because of staff shortages, those that do fly are frequently re-routed, which means that crews can’t predict when they’ll get home, or even where they’ll be spending the night. Cabin crews used to work on four flights per day in the past. Now, they can do five. And layovers have become shorter—so short, the same flight attendant tells TIME, that they frequently don’t have time to sprint across the terminal to find the one eatery still open (many airport concessions remain closed because of staffing problems as well). “We’re just exhausted,” she adds. “This job is not what I signed up [for]It was all so many years ago. There’s no fun in it because the passengers are stressed. And when the passengers are stressed that stresses us.”

It’s that kind of stress and exhaustion—and in the case of at least one airline, British Airways, the COVID-19-era salary reductions that have yet to be annulled— that helps explain the labor strikes posing a new wave of challenges for airports. 1.300 Southwest Airlines pilots pickedeted on the company June 21. Delta pilots also did so in Atlanta, and at other airport hubs. Ground crews at Paris Charles de Gaulle started a four day strike that resulted in the cancellation of 10% of the airport’s flights. Ryanair flight crews from Spain were on day four of the six-day strike. British Airways ground staff and check-in personnel have approved labor actions sometime in the summer.

“It’s not necessarily about their compensation, although if I were in their shoes, I would probably be demanding more too,” says Alton Aviation Consultancy’s Gupta. “It’s because the amount of work has gone up so much. Among pilots in the U.S., I keep hearing, ‘I’ve never worked this much in my life; I’ve never done this much flying in a year.’ And it’s not just pilots: it’s security staff, it’s baggage handlers, it’s all the contracted workers.”

SAS airlines, which has one of its hubs at Copenhagen’s Kastrup, is facing a potential strike of its own next week, which means the airport’s recent, relative calm may soon dissipate again.

At the start of this week, Martin Lindblom, a 39-year-old visual artist on his way to Amsterdam from Copenhagen waited to pass through security next to large posters that pleaded for passengers’ patience. Although he expected the worst, he checked in online, arrived two hours earlier than planned, and was pleased to discover that the queue moved quickly. Still, he wasn’t taking any chances. Knowing that Amsterdam Schiphol was one of most problematic airports on his return, he was ready to accept a long, difficult day. “For that one, I’m getting to the airport six hours ahead of time.”

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