Airports in Europe have replaced U.S. hubs as choke points for the sudden upturn in post-pandemic travel, which has overwhelmed sectors of the air travel infrastructure.
As operational problems have diminished in the U.S., they have increased at the airports of Europe, where crowds have overwhelmed key airports include London Heathrow and Amsterdam Schiphol.
“Both Heathrow and Amsterdam [face] shortages in terms of security staff and baggage handling mainly, also some check in staff and other ground support workers,” said Eddy Pieniazek, head of advisory for London-based Ishka, a global information and advisory business.
“If you then overlay other localized issues, from baggage system failures such as at Heathrow recently or even airspace limitations — [which] were happening around in Europe even before the pandemic — you get the hot spots and flare-ups that get the headlines,” Pieniazek said.
“Heathrow and Amsterdam are amongst the busiest volume wise, so any issues there tend to be compounded,” he said.
By contrast, Delta Air Lines
Bastian went on to say that Delta has addressed its operational issues by halting capacity increases, boarding earlier and implementing other measures. During a recent seven-day period in July, Delta cancelled just 25 of its scheduled 30,000 flights, he said.
In Europe, problems are mounting, and airport efforts to adapt have not been well received. On Tuesday, Heathrow said it will accommodate only 100,000 departing passengers daily through Sept. 11, due to staff shortages, after problems with long security lines, lost luggage and lengthy departure delays. In 2019, the airport handled about 105,000 daily departures.
On Thursday, Emirates, which operates six daily LHR flights, called the airport’s limits “unreasonable and unacceptable” and said it would reject them. It is “highly regrettable that LHR last evening gave us 36 hours to comply with capacity cuts, of a figure that appears to be plucked from thin air,” Emirates said.
The carrier said it planned ahead to be ready to serve passengers, but “LHR chose not to act, not to plan, not to invest,” Emirates said. “Now faced with an ‘airmageddon’ situation due to their incompetence and non-action, they are pushing the entire burden – of costs and the scramble to sort the mess – to airlines and travelers.”
Baggage backups at Heathrow have been so bad that on Monday, after a scheduled flight was canceled, Delta operated an A330 from LHR to Detroit carrying 1,000 bags, which were then forwarded to the airline’s passengers elsewhere.
It is Brussels Airport that leads Europe in delays. On Tuesday, a report by travel booking site Hopper said that so far this month, “Brussels, Frankfurt and Eindhoven [in The Netherlands] airports have reported the worst on time performance of major European airports, with more than two thirds of flights delayed and at Frankfurt International Airport, almost 8% of departing flights canceled.
“Airlines and airports across Europe have struggled to meet the surging demand for travel resulting from nearly two years of closed borders and depressed travel during the highest waves of the covid-19 pandemic,” Hopper said. “Airlines have struggled to service scheduled flights on time, or at all, as they cope with staffing shortages on the ground and in-flight. Airports have struggled with staffing shortages which have left passengers in hours-long lines for security checkpoints and customer service.”
The report noted that not all European airports are seeing significant disruption this month, “with Bergamo [Milan], Dublin and Madrid airports reporting less than 20% of flights delayed and less than 2% canceled on departure.”
Ishka’s Pieniazek said the staffing problem, at its root, is that “the European market has seen a drain of airport and airline ground staff to other industries like pharma and IT (such as in Ireland) or even to supermarket chains (as seen in Lisbon).
“Thanks to the pandemic, many people have changed their approach to work, going for more satisfying, more flexible, and less stressful employment,” he said. “The thing with most airport jobs is you can’t work from home, so airport/airline work may now have a lower appeal and is also being seen as more volatile, less secure employment.
“Filling the staff gaps is time consuming,” Pieniazek added. “The ramp up/induction for airport staff, especially in security-related positions, may take two months to go through the security checks, and you can double that in some countries if you have a different passport to the country you are living in,” he said.
In June, Amsterdam Schiphol said in June that it would allow 67,500 daily passengers in July and 72,500 in August, about 13,500 fewer passengers than planned airline capacity indicated. “A tight labor market has led to there being too few security employees to perform the necessary checks on all the travelers wanting to fly this summer,” the airport said.
On CNBC, Delta’s Bastian said packages of federal aid totaling $58 billion enabled the U.S. airline industry to recover from the pandemic more quickly than Europe has. “Can you imagine if our government had not stepped in and provided the capital to the airlines to give to their airlines to keep our employees engaged, to keep the airport employees engaged? he asked. “Many of their employees were [let go] and they’ve had a very good time getting them back.
“ It’s going to take a while to get the European traffic back on track,” he said.