As travelers set off on vacations to avenge being grounded for so long due to the pandemic, they are getting a reality check. Logjams at airports are ensuring a rather rocky start to their long-awaited trips
European airports are once again inundated with travelers. This is even before summer holidays have begun in many countries.
With most of the pandemic-related restrictions lifted, people are setting off for their dream destinations, eager to make up for lost travel opportunities over the past two years — a phenomenon that is being described as “revenge travel.”
The surge in demand represents a massive turnaround in fortune for the aviation industry which was among the worst hit by the coronavirus-induced lockdowns, losing more than $230 billion (€219 billion) in 2020 with airlines accounting for the bulk of it.
However, the quick rebound has also resulted in fresh headaches for the beleaguered industry, which, taken aback by the swift recovery, is struggling to put together enough staff to deal with the influx of travelers at airports.
Staff shortages and bottlenecks at airports have led to long queues and waiting times for passengers at major European hubs like Frankfurt, Dublin and Amsterdam and hundreds of flight cancellations, threatening to take the shine off the industry’s recovery.
“With governments making U-turns and policy changes there was uncertainty until the last minute, leaving little time to restart an industry that was largely dormant for two years,” Willie Walsh, head of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), said in a statement.
Total demand for air travel in April as measured by revenue passenger kilometers or RPKs — which counts the number of kilometers traveled by paying passengers — soared nearly 80% compared to April 2021, driven by a jump in international travel, the IATA said. It added that the demand on several routes, including Europe/Central America and Middle East/North America, was above pre-pandemic levels.
“People by now have confidence that they will have the classical city experience with restaurants, entertainment, etc. without having to worry about COVID-19 restrictions,” Axel Hefer, managing director and chief executive officer of booking platform Trivago, told DW.
The high demand coupled with elevated jet fuel prices and fewer planes in the sky as many of the aircraft grounded during the pandemic remain idle has pushed up airfares. But that doesn’t seem to be deterring people with wanderlust and forced savings from the pandemic era from making trips.
“After a long period of abstinence, vacations are at the very top of the Germans’ wish list this year — even rising energy costs and increasing inflation cannot affect this desire,” Norbert Fiebig, president of the German Travel Association (DRV), told DW. Fiebig said, on the contrary, people were spending more on holidays this year “booking longer vacations and choosing higher quality.”
Airlines struggling to capitalize on the rush
The roaring comeback was meant to be good news for airlines, which have bled billions of euros in cash over the past two years and were eagerly waiting for this moment. But overwhelmed airports have come as a dampener.
Earlier this month, German flag carrier Lufthansa canceled about 900 domestic and European short-haul flights for July at its hubs in Frankfurt and Munich. Lufthansa unit Eurowings is also scrapping several hundred flights.
“It is foreseeable that the flight schedules will not be able to be flown as hoped due to the bottlenecks,” a Lufthansa spokesperson told DW. “Therefore, we have had to preemptively cancel flights to relieve the system and fly our guests to their destination on time or to enable connecting flights.”
Other airlines, including Lufthansa rival Air France-KLM and discount carrier Wizz Air, have also been hit by the staffing crunch at airports, where peak demand is nearing on volumes experienced pre-COVID-19.
Where’s the airport staff?
The aviation industry is struggling to recruit workers after it was forced to downsize its workforce during the pandemic; their plight made worse by the post-pandemic trend of people becoming extremely picky when it comes to jobs, shunning roles with poor working conditions and low wages.
“The German labor market continues to be very tight. Jobseekers can choose from a large number of vacancies, while employers have difficulties filling up open positions,” a spokesperson for Frankfurt Airport operator Fraport told DW. “Moreover, the recruitment process at airports is specifically complex and time-consuming. This is due to the fact that many operational activities in aviation take place in security-relevant and restricted areas.”
Deutsche Flugsicherung (DFS), the German air navigation service provider, says while it managed to retain its staff during the pandemic thanks to support from the German government, it wasn’t able to train the numbers of staff it would have liked to due to the pandemic restrictions.
“Staff scheduling is not only proving to be very challenging, but it is also reaching the limits of what is possible,” Fabio Ramos, DFS spokesperson, told DW.
The situation in Germany has also been affected by the launch of a new air traffic control system by the French air navigation service provider which has resulted in additional, unplanned traffic being shifted to the country, Ramos said.
“The closure of airspace in Russia and Ukraine is also shifting traffic to Germany. In addition, the war in Ukraine is causing considerably more military air traffic in Germany,” he added.
Risks to travel revival
Given disruptions at airports, travelers are being recommended to arrive at the airport 2 to 2.5 hours even before their domestic flight, preferably check in online and make sure their cabin bags are packed right to help avoid delays at the security checkpoints.
“The latter in particular has an enormous effect, as we are still finding that process times and therefore waiting times at the checkpoint are significantly longer because numerous unauthorized items are carried, liquids are not separated or disposed of until the checkpoint itself, and other regulations are not complied with,” Swedish security services group Securitas, which provides screening services at airports, told DW.
Despite the bottlenecks and staff shortages, the industry expects to cash in on the “revenge travel” wave. But travelers must brace for inconveniences.
“There’s a significant number of trips that are just necessary because you otherwise would go crazy, or your kids go crazy, or both,” Trivago’s Hefer said. “Travelers’ expectations are high that this will be the best summer ever, but labor shortages might lead to them not necessarily getting the experience they’ve been dreaming of.”
Chaotic best describes the scenes at major European airports these days as travelers are forced to endure hourslong lines. The more unfortunate ones end up missing their flights.
Strikes and staff shortages have led to the cancellation of thousands of flights and frustratingly long lines at airports as people rush to fly to their dream destinations after being grounded during the pandemic for the past two years.
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“We are angry because we are on vacation. We organized everything and came five hours early. It’s simply a waste of time. We could be doing something else,” a passenger lining up at Düsseldorf Airport told DW.
The logjams at European hubs such as Frankfurt, London and Paris are also threatening to take the shine off the aviation industry’s recovery from its pandemic lows in 2020, when it lost more than $230 billion (€219 billion) — hurt by lockdowns and travel restrictions.
Labor shortages plague airports
The quick rebound has taken the industry by surprise as it struggles to put together enough staff to deal with the influx of travelers at airports.
Airlines, airports and others in the industry were forced to downsize their workforce during the pandemic. But with demand returning as swiftly as it has, they are struggling to hire staff fast enough.
Their predicament is being made worse by the post-pandemic trend of people becoming more picky when it comes to jobs, shunning roles with poor working conditions and low wages.
“The German labor market continues to be very tight. Job seekers can choose from a large number of vacancies, while employers have difficulties filling up open positions,” a spokesperson for Frankfurt Airport operator Fraport told DW. “Moreover, the recruitment process at airports is specifically complex and time-consuming. This is due to the fact that many operational activities in aviation take place in security-relevant and restricted areas.”
Given disruptions at airports, travelers are being recommended to arrive at the airport up to 2.5 hours before domestic flights, preferably check in online and make sure their cabin bags are packed right to help avoid delays at the security checkpoints.
A wave of flight cancellations
Airlines have canceled thousands of flights in the past few weeks because of the bottlenecks. Lufthansa alone has canceled nearly 3,000 flights.
On Tuesday, the German flag carrier’s chief executive, Carsten Spohr, apologized to its employees and customers for the travel chaos, Reuters reported.
“We certainly made mistakes while saving our company and more than 100,000 jobs over the past two years,” Spohr wrote in a letter to staff seen by the news agency.
“Did we go too far in cutting costs here and there, under the pressure of the more than €10 billion ($10.5 billion) in pandemic-related losses? Certainly that, too,” he added.
The company is recruiting new staff, including thousands of employees in Europe, but the efforts will only bear fruit in winter, Spohr said.
Governments to the rescue
Germany has said it would bring in more temporary airport workers from abroad, mainly from Turkey, to ease the situation during the peak summer holiday season. The German government will fast-track work permits and visas for several thousand foreign workers, Labor Minister Hubertus Heil and Interior Minister Nancy Faeser told reporters on Wednesday.
The foreign workers will be put through the same security checks as domestic airport workers before being allowed to work at airports, Faeser said.
According to Germany’s ADV airport association, about 20% of jobs in security, check-in and aircraft handling remain vacant.
The Portuguese government plans to nearly double border control staff at the country’s six airports by July 4 to handle a massive surge in travelers. The country, one of the sunniest in Europe, has seen the number of passengers through its airports soar this year.
Long lines at airports have also prompted Spanish police to hire 500 more staff to be deployed at the busiest airports, including Madrid and Barcelona. Spanish flag carrier Iberia said earlier this month that delays at Madrid’s Barajas Airport passport control had led to around 15,000 of its passengers missing their flight since March 1.
Ireland has put the army on standby to help with security at Dublin Airport in the event of further disruption during the summer travel period. More than 1,000 people missed their flights in a single day last month at the country’s main airport because of lengthy lines. Passenger numbers at Dublin Airport are close to pre-pandemic levels.