Europe’s Summer Airport Chaos
July 21, 2022
Europe’s aviation infrastructure is buckling under the strain of the en masse return to flying this summer, resulting in chaos at airports, all-too-frequent tales of lost luggage, missed connections, and stranded passengers waiting for hours to speak with frazzled staff.
Across the continent, would-be jetsetters are experiencing queues of up to seven hours to pass through security checkpoints, severely delayed departure times, and an uptick in cancelled flights. Behind the disarray is a failure by the aviation industry to foresee the rapid rebound in travel demand resulting from the bloc-wide relaxation of COVID travel restrictions.
The pandemic outbreak in 2020 saw air travel grind to a standstill as borders closed to halt the spread of the virus. The next two years were to be the most difficult in the history of European aviation, with passenger numbers reaching all-time historical lows. In this unprecedented period, tens of thousands of workers were laid off: around 2.3 million jobs were lost in the sector globally.
Send in the troops
Dublin Airport just before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic
Dublin airport reportedly fired around a quarter of its staff, with those remaining subject to salary freezes or wage cuts. To deal with severe delays resulting from staff shortages, Irish Transport Minister Eamon Ryan announced that the Irish army is being put on standby until the middle of August to assist with airport security.
The Netherlands faced a similar situation, but it got the cold shoulder when Amsterdam’s airport asked the Ministry of Defence. As the ministry’s spokesperson put it: “the Army will not support Schiphol as Schiphol is a commercial Company. … How Schiphol is coping with the situation is a question for Schiphol itself.”
“This wasn’t a realistic option. It is known that defence is struggling with vacancies and that such support would be at the expense of their own training and readiness,” a spokesperson from the airport told EURACTIV.
Germany also primarily placed the responsibility on the airports. “There is no question that the private sector companies affected are themselves responsible for their personnel policies and their consequences,” said a spokesperson for the ministry of transport. Nevertheless, “since the start of the summer travel season means that this situation primarily affects citizens who, after the long phase of harsh pandemic restrictions, now finally want to enjoy their holidays again,” Transport minister Volker Wissing said.
Eventually, Germany struck a deal with a Turkish ground control business to “provide [Germany] up to 2,000 workers at short notice”, with the government in Berlin now working on creating the conditions for their stay.
However, most EU governments have not gone this far to help their airports. Despite announcing on Monday (4 July) that the summer contingency plan has already entered “maximum allocation” reinforcements, the Portuguese government now plans to only send 55 more inspectors from the Immigration and Borders Service to the country’s airports. This comes after the Lisbon airport saw over a hundred flights cancelled over the weekend.
But some countries fared better than others during the pandemic. “In Austria, short-time working has enabled Vienna Airport to bridge the very low-traffic Corona crisis years without any job cuts and is, therefore, less affected than other European airports by the staff shortage and its effects,” State Secretary for Tourism, Susanne Kraus-Winkler told EURACTIV. Yet, even in Vienna, the number of staff “speaks volumes,” as Hansjörg Miethling from the Vida trade union pointed out, where Flighave Wien Group’s 2021 employment sits at around 70% of 2019’s figures.
Costly ‘cool stinginess’
Airport problems have not been confined to Europe, with many North American airports also having difficulties.
The aviation industry has partly blamed politicians for the chaos, arguing that the confusing and ever-changing COVID restrictions made it challenging for the sector to plan adequately. Yet, a major underlying issue is the decision of those who left the industry because of the pandemic to stay away.
In Slovakia, “during the pandemic, some employees changed their profession without returning after the crisis subsided,” a spokesperson from Bratislava’ M.R. Štefánik Airport said.
Recruitment is slow, with many workers previously employed – from security officials to ground handlers to cabin crew – refusing to return, citing low wages, unsociable hours, and poor working conditions, said Livia Spera, General Secretary of the European Transport Workers’ Federation.
“The people that left the sector because they were fired in the first or the second wave of COVID, they decided not to go back. And the reason they’re not going back is because the sector doesn’t provide attractive conditions,” Spera said.
In Germany, they feel that the problem lies deeper. According to a spokesperson of Verdi, Germany’s biggest service sector union, what passengers are currently experiencing is not solely the result of the pandemic, but “is self-made due to the predatory competition of the low-cost carriers at the airports, the associated price wars when it comes to tenders and the mentality of always taking the cheapest of the cheapest.”
“The motto ‘stinginess is cool’ causally leads to chaos and cancellations,” they added, calling politicians to focus on the price of tickets.
In terms of long-term solutions, they called for better working conditions in all air transport jobs, rolling back “the policy of deregulation and liberalisation practised throughout the last 25-30 years,” and putting a halt to deteriorating working conditions for employees of low-cost airlines.
Asking staff to do more, often at a reduced salary, has led to widespread industrial action across the EU. These strikes have affected travellers, as workers halt flights in a bid for higher wages amid rising inflation.
Some countries, however, have adapted more quickly. Finland began to experience the side effects of staff shortages in early June and hired more staff and upgraded their technology. “The recruiting process for airport and security control personnel started early on, and personnel are currently being recruited non-stop,” said Ulla Lettijeff, director of Helsinki Airport.
Personnel recruitment is often coupled with technological upgrades. The Finnish airport, for instance, recently invested in brand-new, modern security control technology, which it says allows it “to perform with twice as much efficiency than before the pandemic”.
© Euractive News, 2022
Edited by Vlad Makszimov, Nathalie Weatherald, Alice Taylor