As summer travel begins and the United States lifts its coronavirus testing requirement for arriving international passengers, many European airports are experiencing major disruption.
“The majority of people traveling within the UK or the European Union will have uninterrupted flights,” said Rory Boland, editor of Which magazine. “That being said, this is the biggest disruption we’ve ever seen, and that’s important.”
Here’s what you need to know about the problems at European airports.
There were indications UK airports were having problems delivering luggage as early as March and April, said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group. But the problems grew bigger and bigger.
In May, passengers reported that the check-in and security lines at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport were so long that they waited hours outside before even entering the terminal. This month it’s happening in Stockholm and Dublin.
A shortage of security guards in Britain has left passengers stranded in queues at London, Manchester and other airports, leading to airlines to cancel dozens of flights. CEO of budget airline Ryanair suggested ‘bringing in the military’ to ease traffic jams; British authorities quickly dismissed the idea, according to the Guardian.
Similarly, long queues have been reported by passengers arriving at immigration checkpoints in London, Amsterdam and elsewhere. And once they’ve passed, there’s no guarantee their luggage will be waiting for them – there are also an insufficient number of porters, meaning days-long delays in getting bags to customers in some cases.
Like many industries, airlines and airports have laid off employees during the pandemic and are struggling to return to previous staffing levels, according to Boland. The airline industry faces additional hurdles as new hires often have to wait for safety qualifications or specialized training.
Low wages at many European airports and airlines make it difficult for workers to compete with other industries, Boland said.
These working conditions have also led to strikes among airport workers in Paris and air traffic controllers in Italy in recent weeks, Bloomberg News and Reuters reported, each leading to hundreds of flight cancellations.
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All of this coincided with “pent-up demand” for travel – an increase in passenger numbers that “caught up [the industry] off guard,” said Peter Vlitas, executive vice president of partner relations at Internova Travel Group.
“I don’t think anyone predicted that we would go that fast,” he said.
How long will this last?
“The problem with that is that it’s not an easy problem to solve,” Boland said. “So if you’re looking at summer vacation, we’re almost certainly going to continue to see significant disruption because there just aren’t enough staff.”
Even if companies soften their offers to recruit employees, the labor shortage could continue for several months, he predicted.
Harteveldt said that although conditions are improving every week, problems at European airports could last well into the fall or winter.
Analysts are unsure how removing the testing requirement before departure from the United States on Sunday will have on travel issues in Europe. It could be a catalyst for even more travel, as travelers worried about a positive coronavirus test blocked them in Europe can now feel free to fly. On the other hand, it could help reduce congestion at terminals, as some airlines require travelers to the United States to queue and have their test results manually reviewed, according to Harteveldt.
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What do I need to know to be ready?
If you’re planning a trip to Europe, here are some tips from travel experts:
Check airport and airline websites at least a day in advance. Some airports post updates on their websites about crowd levels or other disruptions, allowing you to plan your arrival or even consider changing your flight.
Arrive an hour or two earlier. While airlines generally recommend arriving two hours early for an international flight, it’s best to allow three or four hours at European hubs this summer, Harteveldt said. “If you miss your flight, you may not be able to get home for several days because the flights are so full and the airlines are not operating as many flights between Europe and the United States as before the covid,” he said. Even express or priority lanes for business and first class travelers take longer than usual.
Bring your luggage if you can. Due to the shortage of baggage handlers, avoid having your trip derailed by delayed or lost luggage. If you need to check your bag, bring a few sets of clothes and medication with you on board.
Book with plenty of time for connections. Remember that you may need to clear immigration – and in some cases security again – when connecting through European hubs. Be sure to account for unpredictable wait times at passport control.
Take a European airline. According to Boland, European airlines often offer better consumer protections than their American counterparts on the same routes. “If you face a significant delay or disruption, you’re likely going to get several hundred dollars in compensation if you’re with that European or British airline,” he said.
Bring a jacket. Recognizing that check-in lines can extend outside the terminal, Amsterdam Airport recommends bringing a coat for the wait.