France economy

Passengers face chaotic journeys as flight disruption sweeps across Europe

Marivi Wright’s ‘holiday from hell’ began when Air France’s computer systems crashed and staff had to manually check in passengers for her New York flight to Europe.

She missed two connecting flights as she crossed Paris on her way to Spain to visit her 83-year-old mother, landing in Malaga 12 hours late. His luggage could not be found.

“My mum has dementia and it was time for me to sit down with her to go through some photos,” Wright said, explaining that these were in the missing bag. “I’ve spent time shopping for clothes at the airport or filing claims . . . It’s time with my mom that I’ll never go back to. I’m emotionally drained,” she added.

Wright is one of millions of passengers who endured a chaotic summer getaway as flight cancellations and disruptions swept across Europe.

The problems stem from chronic staff shortages in many sectors of the aviation industry, including airlines, airports and ground handling companies, which are contracted out to provide services such as check-in and baggage management.

Passengers wait near an information screen at Rome Fiumicino airport during a workers’ strike. Outbreaks in industrial action have compounded the industry’s problems © Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

As travel restrictions were lifted and many planned their first trips in two years, demand rebounded faster than the industry could hire new employees.

Outbreaks in industrial action have compounded the problems, including a strike by Scandinavian airline SAS pilots that contributed to its bankruptcy filing this month.

“There are problems at all airports in Europe,” said Akbar Al Baker, chief executive of Qatar Airways. “We encounter the same problems in France. . . Belgium, Holland, Germany. In fact, it is an epidemic.

Passengers have also suffered unquantified delays, queuing and lost baggage as the industry has been unable to handle the sheer volume of passengers.

Nikolas Syrimis spent 12 hours inside Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam this week, including two and a half hours in ‘incredibly long’ queues, after his easyJet flight was canceled due to damage to the runway in the extreme temperatures of London Luton Airport.

“Even with all the headlines, seeing it for yourself is nothing like what I’ve ever experienced,” he said.

Airlines and US airports have also suffered disruptions as they have intensified over the past year, but Europe has become the epicenter of travel disruptions this summer.

And even when operations are not interrupted, waits of several hours to pass through European airports have become commonplace.

Passengers queue for check-in at Terminal 2 at Manchester Airport
Passengers queue for check-in at Manchester Airport’s Terminal 2 on Friday, where queues snaked outside and past the car park © Ioannis Alexopoulos/LNP

Queues snaked outside Manchester Airport and outside the car park on Friday, where passengers waiting to depart described ‘organized chaos’ as well as surprise at being forced to stand outside under the rain.

Major hub airports including London Heathrow and Frankfurt have forced airlines to cut schedules to limit overcrowding, and Dutch carrier KLM on Thursday told passengers passing through Schiphol not to try to check in their bags after a breakdown baggage systems.

The vast majority of passengers will eventually arrive at their destination. But busy airports with complex operations and little leeway to reschedule delayed flights have suffered some of the biggest disruptions.

Brussels airport has been the worst in Europe for delays, with 73% of flights delayed this month, according to data compiled by online booking company Hopper. London Heathrow, Charles de Gaulle in Paris and Frankfurt were in the top 10 worst, with more than half of flights delayed.

One in 50 flights from European countries was canceled last week, including 680 flights from Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Spain, three times more than during the same period in 2019, according to data provider Cirium.

Passengers wait at check-in counters during strike over pay for EasyJet Plc and Ryanair workers at El Prat airport in Barcelona, ​​Spain
Passengers wait at check-in counters during a pay-related strike for easyJet Plc and Ryanair workers at El Prat Airport in Barcelona, ​​Spain © Angel Garcia/Bloomberg

Smaller European airports have fared better, partly because of the relative simplicity of their operations. Gran Canaria, Alicante and Malaga in Spain were all among the top 10 performing airports, with less than a fifth of flights experiencing delays.

Pauline Kennedy, who is retired, contrasted her “amazing” experience arriving at Manchester airport with her departure from Amsterdam, where she said there were queues for everything. “I think eventually Manchester got their act together,” she said.

Airports in tourism-dependent economies, where maintaining seamless travel is a national priority, also performed better.

At Athens International Airport, Elisabet Chousiades said she walked through the terminal and collected her luggage without delay after arriving from the United States.

Tourism is vital to the Greek economy, generating a quarter of GDP when indirect contributions are included. Tellingly, Athens airport management has turned to a government support program to keep all of its 800 employees employed during the pandemic, as well as most of the 8,000 contractor employees working in ground handling and security.

“We didn’t fire anyone, we ended the operation and made people work at 50%,” said Yiannis Paraschis, its managing director.

As the summer travel rush begins as schools go their separate ways and families go on annual vacations, the aviation industry is bracing for the pressure to mount even more. Europe’s largest airline, Ryanair, said it expects to carry more passengers this year than in 2019.

There are also signs of operations resuming and disruptions have eased as carriers and airports ramp up operations and send more staff to the frontline.

Cancellation rates in the UK fell from 3% in the first week of June to 1.2% in the same period this month, while in France they rose from 2.5% to 1.4%, according to data firm OAG.

But that’s cold comfort for passengers who have endured long delays, frustrating cancellations while watching luggage go missing.

Marilou Le Lann said her bags went missing during a stopover in Paris on a trip from Turkey to Montreal last weekend. “I have about $30,000 worth of stuff in my luggage — designer bags, shoes, stuff like that,” she said.

She continued: “The reason we went to Turkey was because my partner had a hair transplant and he had the medicine for his transplant in his luggage. This is now in jeopardy because we don’t have all the products he needs.

Additional reporting by Claire Jones in Frankfurt