Airports face long lines and canceled flights

At Toronto Pearson International Airport, lack of security and customs and immigration personnel caused delays and long lines. (Photo: Reuters)

Delays, cancellations, long lines and lost luggage are plaguing air travel around the world as airlines and airports grapple with rising summer demand and staff shortages.

London’s Gatwick Airport has told airlines to reduce inbound flights as it struggles with staff shortages and canceled flights.

During 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 Airport Schiphol is limiting the number of passengers allowed inside, asking travelers not to show up more than four hours before their flights. It’s also advising them to wear comfortable shoes for the long hours of waiting once inside.

The two airports – both gateways to European holidays this summer – are struggling, like the rest of the industry, with chronic staff shortages.

They and others tried to hire employees back after letting them go during a two-year period of travel, thanks to Covid-19 restrictions.

Sydney Airport last week hosted a job fair seeking 5,000 new hires to work at airport employers as varied as Qantas Airways and McDonald’s Corp.

At Toronto Pearson International Airport, the busiest in Canada, a lack of security, customs and immigration personnel caused delays and long lines.

Airport officials are bracing for the disruptions to last into the fall, predicting pent-up demand for travel will not ease.

“This drop may be unusual,” said Greater Toronto Airports Authority chief executive Deborah Flint. “We have markets that are opening up, so we may not see the usual drop in traffic that usually happens after the summer.”

The beginning of summer can be a difficult 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 mainland, excluding Russia, have taken off late, with an average delay of 34 minutes, according to FlightAware, a flight tracking platform.

That compares to 21%, with an average delay of 28 minutes, in June 2019. At Schiphol, Amsterdam, 36% of flights were delayed this month, up from 28% in 2019.

Flight cancellations rose in June, according to data compiled by aviation data consultancy Cirium.

In the United States, about 3% of scheduled flights have been canceled so far this month, compared with a rate of 2% in 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic. The total number of cancellations increased 16% to 13,581 fights compared to the same period a year ago.

In Europe, excluding Russia, around 2% of all flights have been canceled so far in June, compared with a rate of 1% for the same period in 2019. The number of canceled flights increased by 162% to 8,228 in June. June compared to the same period in 2019.

The data reflects cancellations within 72 hours of scheduled takeoff time and does not take into account pre-arranged capacity reductions announced between operators, Cirium said.

A series of unrelated technical issues increased outages across Europe.

Switzerland temporarily closed its airspace after an information technology glitch last week. Flights to London’s Luton Airport, a gateway to mainland Europe, were canceled due to a power outage earlier this month. Prague Airport was operating at reduced capacity following a failure in its air traffic control system last week.

Demand for U.S. domestic travel has been on the rise for months — overwhelming capacity in some places at peak times, like the Memorial Day weekend earlier this year and the recent three-day Juneteenth weekend.

More than 5,000 flights have been canceled in recent days by US airlines, which have blamed staff shortages and bad weather.

The Federal Aviation Administration said on Monday that the problems are lessening as the weather improves and traffic volumes decrease.

Americans are now also venturing abroad.

The US recently lifted one of its last remaining pandemic-era restrictions on global travel, removing the requirement that people test negative for Covid-19 before boarding flights to the US. Reservations for European destinations from the US are almost back to 2019 levels.

United Airlines said it saw a 7.6% increase in searches for U.S. travel to international destinations in the three days after the testing requirement ended, compared with the previous week.

Meanwhile, the global industry has struggled to keep up as other governments eased or minimized Covid-era travel restrictions. The subsequent demand for flights, especially during the summer, has taken airlines and airports by surprise, executives say.

“The industry has created an expectation of a more gradual and much slower increase in demand than what is actually happening,” said Jozsef Varadi, chief executive of Wizz Air, one of Europe’s biggest discount operators.

Globally, the industry is also struggling to fill positions in air traffic control, airport security, baggage handling and catering, as well as check-in.

Governments have tried to support or subsidize airlines during the crisis, with government-backed bailout or license programs. But the measures have been a patchwork quilt and have not helped some airlines and airports retain enough staff to quickly return to meet demand.

Airports have to deal with security measures related to hiring. The recruitment process can take around 16 weeks, including the relevant security background checks that allow a worker to enter certain parts of an airport.

“Putting employees back into an airport is not like hiring a restaurant or supermarket,” said Olivier Jankovec, managing director of airport group ACI Europe.

He said it would have been unwise to start hiring earlier, when a wave of the Omicron variant has led to the return of restrictions in many places.

Still, Jankovec said, “to have full resources today, we would have needed to have started a recruitment drive about six months ago.”

Airlines are taking unusual steps to mitigate the impact. easyJet has removed a row of 58 seats from its smallest Airbus A319 aircraft so it can fly these jets with fewer crew, without going over the mandatory crew-to-seat ratios.

Qantas Australia has asked staff at its headquarters to help on the ground at its airports in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. They are performing tasks such as distributing water to customers or transporting late arrivals through security.

“There are locks in the chain across the industry,” said Qantas Chief Executive Alan Joyce.

He described commercial aviation now as “a rusty industry, trying to get it flowing again”.

Over the weekend, at Terminal 2 at London’s Heathrow, barricades were erected outside the airport’s main entrance, anticipating the long lines later in the day.

On Saturday, passengers stopped to take pictures of hundreds of bags that were stored in the ground floor lobby outside the terminal. They were left there overnight after a baggage handling failure left them stranded.

“It was the first time I’ve seen anything like this,” said Charlie Mischel, who runs a small Houston-based telecommunications company and was on vacation in the UK.

A spokeswoman for Heathrow said the baggage issue, which began on Friday, was resolved the next day.

“We are working closely with airlines to reunite passengers with their luggage as quickly as possible,” she said.

Austin Carroll said United had sent emails advising him to arrive at the airport at least four hours early.

He is a US student who was in London for an internship at a family finance company. He decided to arrive five hours early: “I didn’t want to risk it.”

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