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Europe seeks ways to ease summer travel chaos

June 29, 2022

Cancellations and long lines at airports: This isn't what air travelers had planned for as they set off on their long-awaited trips postponed by the pandemic. Now, governments are stepping in to minimize their misery.

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People wait in long lines amid summer travel chaos due to lack of personnel at Dusseldorf International Airport
European airports do not have enough staff to deal with a surge in post-pandemic travelImage: Kadir Ilboga/AA/picture alliance

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.

"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. 

"My neighbor works at the airport, and he said it was because of a lack of security personnel — and that's stupid. You pay a lot of money for your flight, so it's annoying if you miss it," another traveler said.

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.

Travelers wait in long lines outside the terminal building to check in and board flights at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport
Travelers are advised to arrive at the airport up to 2.5 hours before flightsImage: Peter Dejong/AP Photo/picture alliance

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.

Travelers with their baggage
Passengers have had to endure long waiting times at airports during staff shortages Image: Christoph Hardt/Panama Pictures/IMAGO

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.

Dan Hirschfeld contributed to this report.

Staff shortages cause airport chaos

Edited by: Hardy Graupner

Portrait photo of Ashutosh Pandey wearing a blue collared shirt and a navy-blue blazer
Ashutosh Pandey Business editor with a focus on international trade, financial markets and the energy sector.@ashutoshpande85