MADRID – On the brink of what is expected to be a record summer in the number of travellers who want to reach their holiday destination by air, tourism is in danger of facing a collapse in air traffic. Airports are already experiencing chaos.
At some airports, staff shortages have been flagged for weeks, such as in the UK and the Netherlands. Moreover, these are two of the main air connection points for Spain. However, in Spain, the problem is mainly at border controls, where there is a lack of police for passport controls. As 80% of international tourists visiting Spain arrive by plane, this gives an idea of the problem.
Problems at Heathrow and Schiphol
Some airlines, especially British ones, have had to cancel hundreds of flights in recent months because they didn’t have enough staff to run them. Last week, some of Europe’s major airports, London’s Heathrow and Amsterdam Schiphol, the world’s third-largest international airport, were already experiencing significant delays and even flight cancellations.
In the second case, the staff shortage is such that the national airline, KLM, had to suspend the sale of tickets for outbound flights because it could not guarantee the services. Last Saturday, not even a single passenger was able to return to Schiphol for the same reason.
Problem been coming for months
The Association of Airlines ALA, which brings together more than 80 airlines, has been warning for months about the need to increase the number of police officers at border controls to facilitate passenger flows.
Lockdown and Brexit as a reason
The collapses at the airports are as a result of the lockdowns and sharp reduction in activity due to the pandemic. At the time, it was decided to transfer dozens of police officers from Madrid-Barajas to other locations. With the return to relative normalcy, the police force – responsible for passport control, security, asylum, and judicial procedures – has gradually increased in number. However, that number is still far from the level of more than two years ago.
In addition, international tourism has recovered much faster than expected in the past two months. Moreover, it is the first summer after Brexit. These two factors together cause the filters to collapse at the border. British tourists now have to go through passport control, something that was not necessary before the pandemic.
Iberia exposes ‘chaos’ on Barajas
This Monday, Iberia denounced “the chaos” in the passport control area of the Barajas T4 terminal. As a result, the departure of some of its flights had to be delayed. In particular, flights to Buenos Aires, Chicago, and Miami departed late as they had to wait for passengers stuck at police checkpoints.
According to ALA, there is a good chance that this situation will worsen during the summer period. Other airports are also likely to experience long waiting times if no measures are taken.
According to Iberia, some 15,000 passengers have missed their connection since March 1, due to crowds at passport controls. ALA pointed out in December that more than 5,000 people had lost their flights in Barajas as a result. At Easter, this lot struck 3,000 passengers. In addition to Madrid airport, which has the most international traffic, the organisation also reports problems in other highly touristic airports such as Malaga, Alicante, Malaga, Seville, Ibiza, Tenerife Sur, or Seville.
Interior ministry sources “categorically deny that there are queues or significant delays at passport controls at Spanish airports,” El Mundo wrote in a June 6 article.
Bad for Spain’s image as a holiday destination
ALA also emphasizes that it negatively affects Spain’s international image. The Popular Party already raised this issue in parliament in December 2021. The party presented a non-legal proposal to increase the number of National Police officers at airport border controls “urgently”.
Just as busy as in 2019
The airlines’ schedule for this summer is almost identical to that of 2019, the last year before the pandemic. 212 million seats are planned. That’s just 0.4% less than two years ago, according to data from ALA president Javier Gándara. However, the sector’s full recovery is not expected until 2023.
Madrid, Balearic Islands and Alicante
The current situation at Madrid airport has not improved compared to six months ago. Even though in the coming weeks 116 new agents are expected, sources at unions The Objective warn that at least 200 more agents are needed.
The panorama at the airports of the Balearic Islands is even worse: there is a staff shortage of 50%. There are currently 102 officers on duty, but another 100 are needed, the same sources say.
At the airports of Tenerife South and Lanzarote (Canary Islands), due to the lack of staff, the solution is to change shifts to fill all the necessary places.
And in Alicante, where passenger numbers have doubled in ten years, unions say at least 51 additional officers are needed. The General Directorate of Police has announced that it will expand its base in Alicante by four posts.
Relaxation of travel controls
It, therefore, does not seem entirely coincidental that the Ministry of Health has decided to abolish health checks for travelers from the European Union (EU) and Schengen countries. However, the controls are maintained for travelers from third countries, with measures such as temperature measurement and document control.
Gándara asks that these measures be made equal for all travelers from third countries, such as the British or the Americans. Competing tourist destinations such as Greece or Italy do not require these controls.
Chaos elsewhere too
On the other hand, there have been many flight delays and cancellations across Europe in recent weeks for various other reasons. Last week there were 200 cancelled Easyjet flights due to computer failures. A few days ago, staff shortages at Dublin airport were the reason for long queues and delays. Furthermore, on Saturday, travellers were unable to return to Dublin due to staff shortages at Schiphol.
Strong increase in the number of claims
According to Flight Claims, a company dedicated to consumer protection in aviation matters, the number of claims has already increased by 55% in 2022 compared to the same period in 2019. Travellers are entitled to compensation if they are delayed by more than three hours due to a computer malfunction. In addition, they can demand a refund of the ticket if their flight is definitively cancelled.
The amount that can be claimed varies between €250 and €600, depending on the distance of the flight. Added to this are the costs that the delay or cancellation could cause, such as meals, taxis, unused hotels, or additionally booked hotels.
Crisis will continue
Analysts predict that the crisis will continue beyond the start of the strong summer season, from the end of July. Meanwhile, Heathrow announced plans to hire 1,000 workers shortly and the reopening of Terminal 4 on June 14. London’s main airport has been on the brink of collapse recently, both in the terminals and in the car parks.