Delays, cancellations, long lines and lost baggage are plaguing air travel worldwide, as airlines and airports struggle with soaring summer demand and staff shortfalls.
London’s Gatwick Airport has told airlines to cut back on inbound flights as it struggles with staff shortages and cancelled flights. Over a four-day weekend celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee earlier this month, lines of passengers waiting to check in stretched out of the terminal.
Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport is limiting the number of passengers allowed inside, asking travellers not to show up more than four hours before their flights. It is also warning them to wear comfortable shoes for the hours long wait once inside.
At Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, staffing shortages in security and at customs and immigration have caused delays and long lines. (Photo: Reuters)
The two airports – both gateways for European vacations this summer – are struggling, like the rest of the industry, with chronic staff shortages. They and others have tried to hire staff back after letting them go during a two-year-long travel bust thanks to Covid-19 restrictions.
Sydney Airport last week staged a job fair looking for 5,000 new hires to work at airport employers as varied as Qantas Airways and McDonald’s Corp.
At Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, Canada’s busiest, staffing shortages in security and at customs and immigration have caused delays and long lines.
Airport officials are bracing for the disruptions to last into the fall, forecasting that pent-up demand for travel won’t let up. “This fall might be unusual,” said Greater Toronto Airports Authority chief executive Deborah Flint. “We have markets that are opening up, so we might not see the usual dip in traffic that usually comes after summer.”
The start of summer can be a tough time to travel in the best of years. But delays, especially in Europe, are particularly high this summer season.
So far this month, 25% of scheduled flights on the continent, excluding Russia, took off late, with an average delay of 34 minutes, according to FlightAware, a flight-tracking platform. That compares with 21%, with an average delay of 28 minutes, in June 2019. At Schiphol in Amsterdam, 36% of flights have been delayed this month, up from 28% in 2019.
Flight cancellations have risen in June, according to data compiled by aviation data consultancy Cirium.
In the United States, about 3% of scheduled flights have been scrapped so far this month, compared with a 2% rate in 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic. The total number of cancellations rose 16%, to 13,581 fights, from the year-earlier period.
In Europe, excluding Russia, about 2% of all flights have been cancelled so far in June, compared with a rate of 1% for the same period in 2019. The number of cancelled flights rose 162%, to 8,228, in June, compared with the same period in 2019. The data reflects cancellations within 72 hours of the scheduled take-off time and does not account for the pre-arranged capacity reductions announced across carriers, Cirium said.
Waiting lines at the Pearson Airport, Toronto, Canada. Image: Reuters
A series of unrelated technical issues have added to disruptions across Europe. Switzerland temporarily closed its airspace after an information-technology glitch last week. Flights to London’s Luton Airport, a gateway to continental Europe, were scrapped because of a power outage earlier this month. Prague Airport operated at reduced capacity after a failure in its air-traffic-control system last week.
Demand for U.S. domestic travel has been surging for months — overwhelming capacity in some places at busy times, such as the Memorial Day weekend earlier this year and the recent three-day Juneteenth weekend. More than 5,000 flights have been cancelled in recent days by United States carriers, which have blamed staff shortages and bad weather. The Federal Aviation Administration said early Monday that the problems were easing as weather improves and traffic volumes subside.
Americans are now also venturing overseas. The U.S. recently lifted one of its last remaining pandemic-era restrictions on global travel, dropping a requirement that people test negative for Covid-19 before boarding U.S.-bound flights. Bookings for European destinations from the U.S. are almost back to 2019 levels. United Airlines said it recorded a 7.6% increase in searches for trips from the U.S. to international destinations in the three days after the end of the testing requirement, compared with the previous week.
The global industry, meanwhile, has been battling to keep up as other governments have dropped or minimised Covid-era travel restrictions. The subsequent demand for flying, especially during the summer, has taken airlines and airports by surprise, executives say.
“The industry created an expectation for a more gradual, much slower ramp-up in demand than what’s actually happening,” said Jozsef Varadi, chief executive of Wizz Air, one of Europe’s biggest discount carriers.
Globally the industry is also fighting to fill roles in air-traffic control, airport security, baggage handling and catering, as well as at check-in. Governments had tried to prop up or subsidise airlines through the downturn, with bailout or government-backed furlough programs. But the measures have been a patchwork and haven’t helped some airlines and airports retain sufficient staff to quickly snap back to meet demand.
Airports have to contend with security measures related to hiring. The recruitment process can take around 16 weeks, including the relevant security background checks that allow a worker into certain parts of an airport.
“Getting staff back into an airport isn’t like hiring for a restaurant or supermarket,” said Olivier Jankovec, director general of airports group ACI Europe. He said it would have been reckless to begin hiring earlier, when a wave of the Omicron variant led to the return of restrictions in many places.
Still, Mr. Jankovec said, “to be fully resourced today, we’d need to have begun a recruitment drive about six months ago.”
Airlines are taking unusual steps to mitigate the impact. European discounter easyJet has removed a row of seats from 58 of its smallest Airbus A319 aircraft so it can fly those jets with fewer crew members, without going above mandated crew-to-seat ratios.
Australia’s Qantas has asked office staff at its headquarters to help on the ground at its airports in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. They are performing tasks such as handing out water to customers or ferrying late arrivals through security.
“There are blocks in the chain all the way through the industry,” Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said. He described commercial aviation right now as “a rusty industry, trying to get it flowing again.”
Over the weekend, at London’s Heathrow Terminal 2, barricades had been erected outside the airport’s main entrance in anticipation of long lines later in the day. On Saturday, passengers stopped to take pictures of hundreds of suitcases that had been stashed on the ground-floor concourse, outside the terminal. They were left there overnight after a baggage-handling fault left them stranded.
“That was the first time I’ve seen anything like that,” said Charlie Mischel, who runs a small telecommunications company based out of Houston and was on vacation in the United Kingdom.
A spokeswoman for Heathrow said the baggage issue, which started on Friday, had been resolved by the next day. “We are working closely with airlines to reunite passengers with their luggage as soon as possible,” she said.
Austin Carroll said United had sent emails advising him to get to the airport at least four hours early. He is a student from the US who had been in London for an internship at a family-run finance outfit. He decided to arrive five hours early: “I didn’t want to take the risk.”